The looming possibility of offshore drilling just 50 miles from South Carolina’s coastline could find more than one presidential candidate looking out of their depth as the state’s February primaries approach.
Coastal communities, businesses and lawmakers across the state have been taking sides for months as the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management gets ready to release a finalized five-year plan for offshore oil and gas drilling leases this spring that includes waters off South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. The controversial proposal is pitting coastal communities and environmental groups against state leaders who see it as a source of jobs and billions in revenue.
White House hopefuls, who have been debating starkly partisan issues for months, will have to tread carefully in the Palmetto State.
“I think national candidates assume South Carolinians align with national, polarized politics, but conservation is viewed here as a bipartisan issue,” said Ann Timberlake, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “Given the preponderance of Republicans living along our coast who care about this issue, I believe it could swing some votes, especially in these last weeks before our February primaries.”
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Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have been vocal about their opposition to Atlantic offshore drilling. When pressed by a S.C. radio station, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton said she is “very skeptical” about it.
Most Republican candidates haven’t come out with a definite position, preferring to point to a more general energy policy. But, in the coming weeks, they will certainly be asked by a state with a nearly 200-mile coastline that depends heavily on tourism.
Environmental groups and coastal communities are skeptical of the economic benefits of drilling, which they say would come at the cost of marine life, the environment and a billion-dollar tourism industry.
While efforts have focused on getting the Obama Administration to pull its plan for the Atlantic area, groups from both sides are shifting their attention to the 2016 election – and his successor.
“The Obama Administration has another couple of weeks to finalize their drilling plans, but the reality is that like Sarah Palin made `drill baby, drill’ an issue in 2008, stopping offshore drilling will play a key role in the energy debate this election,” said David Helvarg, director of the Blue Frontier marine conservation advocacy group.
“It’s not the traditional partisan issue; this has divided coastal areas against state houses, and people are going to be asking the candidates these questions,” he said.
‘We will be one of the first’
Every local government along the S.C. coast, 24 in all including Charleston and Myrtle Beach, has passed a resolution to formally oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling, even as many state and federal leaders have supported the proposal.
“There is a disconnect between the governors at the state level and what’s happening at the local level, which is bipartisan and unanimous opposition,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
S.C. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has long supported offshore drilling, and along with the governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia asked to be included in the plan, which the administration said influenced their decision.
“Offshore drilling is where we need to be. We don’t want to wait until other states do it, we will be one of the first states to do it,” Haley said in a 2012 speech flanked by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
In her public comments on the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management proposal, Haley says her support “should not be construed as unconditional or unconcerned” and asks for a buffer zone “to balance industry needs against preservation of South Carolina’s coastal aesthetic.”
As the presidential race enters South Carolina, industry groups have been making their case to voters as well, touting their polls that show the majority of the state supports drilling. A poll of S.C. voters last year by Consumers Energy Alliance, a coalition of energy industry groups, showed 85 percent of the Palmetto State voters polled said energy issues will play an important role in the 2016 election.
The American Petroleum Institute has taken their advocacy branch to social media, launching a campaign called “Vote4Energy” to urge voters to commit to candidates who support expanding offshore drilling.
Opponents have countered with Sea Party 2016, a broad anti-drilling coalition ranging from environmental organizations to tea-party backed conservatives from coastal states. They gained one of their biggest advocates in U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C , who represent a coastal district and has spoken out against the proposed drilling leases.
‘It matters enormously’
The Obama Administration’s final plan will be published before the end of March and is on track to be completed by the end of 2016, Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management spokeswoman Connie Gilette said.
The leases would span 2017 to 2022 and could tie the hands of the Obama’s successor. So does it ultimately matter what the 2016 candidates say on the stump?
“It matters enormously,” said Michael Livermore, an environmental law professor at the University of Virginia. “We don’t really know what the final story is going to be yet. If the next administration opposes drilling in the Atlantic, they’ll have plenty of discretion to avoid it.”
And if a Republican administration came in and did not want to wait to impose its own plan, it could start its own planning process to move up the timeline, he said.
“(Candidates’) positions are still going to matter, and the next administration will be in charge of next five-year plan,” Livermore said.
There is one thing both sides can agree on: It’s time the 2016 candidates to release clear positions and become familiar with the issue, because it’s not going away.
“These communities are going to continue to fight for their vision of their home, their coast,” Weaver said. “The Atlantic lease sale is in 2021, and if this goes forward, you’ll see people continue to fight in court as well as through advocacy with the next administration.”
Where the 2016 presidential hopefuls stand
Bernie Sanders: Sanders has said he would block all offshore oil and gas development.
Hillary Clinton: In an interview for a S.C. radio show, Clinton said she’s “very skeptical about the need or the desire for us to pursue offshore drilling off the coast of South Carolina” or other Southeastern states. Still, as a U.S. senator from New York in 2006 Clinton sided with Republicans and oil-patch Democrats in 2006 by voting for the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened an additional 8 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling
Martin O’Malley: The former Maryland governor has criticized the Obama Administration’s plan to open the Atlantic to offshore drilling, calling it “a big mistake.”
Marco Rubio: Rubio would permit more offshore oil and gas drilling, which President Obama already has expanded.
Ted Cruz: Cruz introduced legislation called the American Energy Renaissance Act in 2014 and 2015 that would give “deference” to coastal states to determine whether to approve drilling. “There he proposes to allow increased drilling on public lands and to allow states to lease energy developments on federal lands,” said Cruz spokesman spokesman Rick Tyler.
Jeb Bush: Bush supports offshore drilling, but as Florida governor he fought to keep it off his state’s coast. Then a few years later, Bush supported a House Republican bill that would open much more of the Gulf to oil drilling, while providing a 125-mile buffer.
Carly Fiorina: “If we are serious about growing our economy and lessening our dependence on foreign oil, then offshore drilling has to be part of that equation.”
Chris Christie: In 2011, Christie expressed “strong opposition to off-shore drilling in New Jersey, as well as drilling off the coast of other nearby states that could negatively impact the state’s 130 miles of coastline and multi-billion dollar tourism industry.”
Donald Trump: Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, and he has not taken an official position on the issue. However, his previous statements indicate he would support expanded offshore drilling. In 2011, Trump said, “I think it’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen that we go slow on drilling. There are always going to be problems. You’re going to have an oil spill; you’re going to have this. … You clean it up and you fix it up, and it’ll be fine.”
SOURCE: Candidates’ campaigns, McClatchy research