Politics & Government

SC’s Joe Cunningham scores big win in House vote to ban offshore drilling

When Joe Cunningham returns home to his South Carolina district, he can say he convinced a majority of the U.S. House to go on the record in support of banning offshore drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

This was a 2018 campaign promise on which the Democratic congressman has now delivered — at least the part over which he has some control.

Cunningham’s bill to institute a permanent ban on oil and gas drilling passed the Democratic-controlled chamber on Wednesday afternoon, 238-189, but it’s not likely to ever become law.

The issue is still divisive among Republicans who tend to support what they call an “all of the above” energy policy that doesn’t preclude oil and gas drilling as a means of securing domestic energy independence.

All but 12 Republicans voted “no” on the House bill Wednesday.

Republicans by and large don’t want to run afoul of President Donald Trump, who in 2017 signed an executive order to allow for oil an gas exploration on nearly all U.S. waters. That order is currently stalled due to legal action and widespread opposition from GOP officials in coastal states.

Even those coastal Republican lawmakers who oppose offshore drilling on behalf of their constituents said they opposed Cunningham’s bill because it was a blanket ban rather than one that gave state governments flexibility to decide for themselves whether they support the practice.

But Cunningham’s bill is ultimately a messaging bill — one intended to tell voters around the country ahead of a presidential election year that Democrats care about protecting the environment, which they say is under assault by the Trump administration.

The legislation also is meant to send an important message to Cunningham’s constituents who overwhelmingly oppose oil and gas drilling in their coastal district: reelect Cunningham in 2020.

One of the most vulnerable incumbents of the campaign’s cycle, Cunningham has been given a leading role in the offshore drilling debate.

Recognizing Cunningham ran and won on this issue last year, Democratic leaders allowed him to be the lead sponsor of the bill, even though more seasoned lawmakers were also interested in having that distinction.

And on Wednesday, leadership also selected Cunningham to give the Democratic rebuttal to a Republican procedural maneuver designed to force Democrats to take a politically uncomfortable vote before passing the drilling ban bill.

These speeches give the lawmakers a chance to get some substantial C-SPAN screen time and an opportunity to create a viral moment.

“I want to remind my colleagues — I would remind them, if you are a true conservative, if you are a real conservative, be an environmental conservative, too,” Cunningham said during the rebuttal to enthusiastic Democratic applause.

‘They have spoken’

During a speech in defense of his bill on the House floor Wednesday, Cunningham made his case that oil and gas drilling posed an existential threat to coastal economies.

Oil spills could threaten the safety and security of communities like those he represents in the 1st Congressional District, while also disrupting South Carolina’s $22.6 billion-a-year tourism economy that relies on undistributed beaches and waterfronts.

“Offshore drilling is reckless, it’s harmful, and it’s absolutely disruptive to the communities that we call home,” Cunningham said. “Opposition to offshore drilling is not a partisan issue.”

To underscore his point at a press conference outside the Capitol building shortly before the final vote, Cunningham name-checked Lowcountry Republican mayors, the GOP-controlled S.C. Legislature and Gov. Henry McMaster as those who also oppose drilling.

But debate on the House floor Wednesday showed clearly there was a stark partisan divide. The debate was political, with Democrats all speaking in support of Cunningham’s bill and Republicans all speaking in opposition.

Even the Republicans in the S.C. congressional delegation who have expressed opposition to offshore drilling in the past — like U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, of Myrtle Beach, and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, of Springdale. Wilson said he was influenced by the opposition of his son, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson — did not participate in Wednesday’s floor debate.

Rice and Wilson ended up voting “no,” along with S.C. GOP Reps. Ralph Norman, of Rock Hill, and William Timmons, of Greenville.

The only other South Carolinian to join in the debate — who also voted against the measure — was U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican from Laurens, a non-coastal part of the state, and one of the House’s staunchest defenders of the practice.

“Mr. Cunningham’s bill blocks $2.2 billion from going to schools, roads and conservation efforts in South Carolina through revenue sharing,” Duncan said, referring to the idea that a drilling ban would deprive the state of the opportunity to lease its coastal areas to oil and gas exploration companies.

U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., suggested the bill, formally titled the “Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act,” be re-named “Russian Energy Reliance and U.S. Poverty Act.”

And U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., acknowledged he didn’t want offshore drilling in his state but lamented Cunningham’s bill gave no deference to state elected officials and instead imposed a “blanket ban” across all localities.

Cunningham, in an interview with The State, said that argument didn’t impress him.

“It runs counter to the facts,” said Cunningham. “This bill is a response to states making that decision because we have a collection of letters from governors saying they don’t want it ... They have spoken.

“We do need some finality, and we do need to close the door” to drilling, he added.

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