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An ocean away, but oil spill makes an impact

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“I spent the day in North Inlet,” said Scott Benston. “All I could think about was how blessed we are.”

That’s why he signed up to sponsor an event Saturday to oppose offshore oil drilling. “That’s not really the answer,” said Benston, owner of Surf the Earth at Pawleys Island. “Not off our coast.”

The oil spill that began two months ago in the Gulf of Mexico has given new focus to opponents of offshore drilling in South Carolina, even though few believe the millions of gallons of oil will have a direct impact on the state’s coastline.

“The likelihood of seeing toxic or even gooey materials arrive in this section of the coast seems remote,” said Dennis Allen, director of the University of South Carolina’s Baruch Marine Lab.

The state Department of Natural Resources is monitoring the ocean for oil. “No oil’s been detected out of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Robert Boyles, the agency’s director of marine resources.

One impact of the Gulf oil spill that the department will monitor is any changes in applications for commercial fishing licenses. Fishing is now prohibited in 36 percent of the Gulf. “To me, that’s staggering,” Boyles said. “Are we going to see some effort displacement from the Gulf of Mexico to over here? It’s too soon to tell.”

But the spill in the gulf has an impact, said Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League. “The danger’s hit home from what I’ve seen,” he said.

The conservation group opposes offshore drilling, but Hamilton said the oil spill has obscured a larger issue. “We’re missing the point in South Carolina that we don’t have any comprehensive energy policy in place,” he said. “It should just be ‘no expanded offshore drilling.’ It should be ‘we have these other resources.’ ”

There has been a federal ban on drilling off the East Coast since 1990. President Obama lifted that in March for the area between Delaware and Florida. The disaster at the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast came three weeks later.

“How ironic,” said Boyles, who also serves on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

The irony isn’t lost on Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet, a charter boat captain who also serves on the fishery council. He supported an end to the drilling ban when President Bush proposed it in June 2008 as gasoline prices climbed toward $4 a gallon.

He still believes additional exploration is needed, but the Deepwater Horizon disaster underscores the need to make sure there is technology in place to make the work environmentally-friendly.

“There needs to be more care and more oversight,” Swatzel said. “The technology needs to be revisited before drilling off the Carolina coast.”

With gasoline prices down more than a third from June 2008, he said it probably isn’t economically feasible to explore on this part of the coast.

South Carolina has focused on natural gas. A study committee created by the legislature recommended last year that the state support offshore drilling as part of a state energy policy provided natural resources and tourism were protected.

Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis supports offshore drilling, his position unchanged by the Gulf spill. “We have got to get ourselves energy-independent,” he said. “Everything takes eight or 10 years even to get permitted. We can’t afford to wait.”

The town withdrew from the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association after the group withdrew its support for offshore drilling in May. The association, which supports beach nourishment projects, said the Gulf spill raised serious questions about the oil and gas industry’s ability to respond to a disaster.

“Because you have an accident do you stop everything?” Otis said. “Do planes stop flying?”

Otis is on the Gulf Coast of Florida this week fishing. “The guide said he’s having a good season,” Otis said.

The same factor that he believes will diminish any impact from the Gulf spill on Pawleys Island will mitigate offshore gas drilling: distance.

The Gulf Stream is 60 miles from Pawleys Island. Otis said offshore gas rigs would be about the same distance. Unlike wind turbines under consideration off the coast near Winyah Bay, the gas rigs won’t be visible.

Town Council hasn’t discussed the offshore wind turbines, though members have looked at images that show how the turbines would look from shore.

“As long as it’s south of Winyah Bay, it should have no impact,” Otis said, although he wonders about any navigation lights on the turbines.

Wind energy is one of the initiatives the Coastal Conservation League supports.

“In a lot of places those towers have become a tourist attraction,” said Davis, who served on both the natural gas and wind energy study committees. “We’ve seen zero objections to it.”

Saturday’s rally against offshore drilling, Hands Across the Sand, is also meant as a show of support for alternate energy. “I’d rather have a little bit of an eyesore out in the distance than an eyesore under your feet” in the form of oil, Benston said.

State Sen. Ray Cleary said the objections he’s heard to wind turbines isn’t so much their appearance, but their efficiency. “I’m not sure if I can justify 100 windmills eight miles out versus one gas rig 90 miles out,” he said. “I want to know which one is more cost efficient.”

There is support in the legislature for natural gas drilling, with the state expecting to share in the royalties paid for the leases. Cleary believes it has the potential to keep electricity costs down and provide a clean alternative to coal.

“The good news is there are discussions taking place,” said state Rep. Vida Miller. “A few years ago it was hard to get anyone to discuss these alternate energy sources.”

She had concerns about the environmental impact of offshore drilling when President Bush proposed lifting the moratorium. “The situation on the Gulf Coast has brought some apprehension to those who might have been on the borderline,” Miller said.

The legislature called on state agencies last month to come up with a plan for dealing with any oil that threatens the South Carolina coast from the Gulf spill. Cleary and Miller hope to see a draft when they return to Columbia next week for a one-day session.

By the time oil would reach the South Carolina coast in the Gulf Stream it would be “aged and weathered,” said Allen, director of the Baruch Marine Lab that overlooks the North Inlet estuary.

It would take several days of a prevailing east wind to drive the oil to the beaches and inlets, the same conditions that bring sargassum weed to the shore every few years, he said. The seaweed would probably bring the oil to the coast.

“All it will take will be one sequence of tropical weather events,” Allen said.

North Inlet, part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve system, has been the focus of scientific study for decades. Since the spill, scientists have been “thinking and wondering” about potential impacts on the inlet.

“We’re being vigilant and thinking about priorities,” Allen said. “When you get right down to it, there’s not much you can do except sample and measure.”

Oil Spill 101 | Faculty from Coastal Carolina University will discuss the possible local impacts of the Gulf oil spill tonight in Myrtle Beach.

Louis Keiner, who chairs the department of chemistry and physics, will talk about the current system that could lead the oil to the East Coast. Jim Luken, a biology professor, will talk about the impacts on beaches and wetlands.

Michael Roberts, dean of the College of Science, will moderate a question-and-answer session.

The program begins at 6 p.m. at the Horry-Georgetown Tech campus near Market Common.

Hands Across the Sand | The First Street beach access on Pawleys Island will be the site of an event Saturday to protest the lifting of a ban on offshore oil and gas drilling.

Hands Across the Sand started earlier this year in Florida. Saturday’s events are planned around the country.

Participants are asked to arrive on the beach at 11 a.m. and form a line in the sand. At noon, they will all join hands.

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