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Environment: ‘You can have it all,’ oil industry consultants tell county leaders

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Hopes for turning the port of Georgetown into a hub for the offshore oil and gas industry will come down to timing, according to industry experts. The South Carolina coast will have to be among the first tracts opened up for leases from the federal government.

If not, “you will probably miss that opportunity,” said Ted Falgout, a consultant to the oil and gas industry in Louisiana. He was the director of Port Fourchon during its 30-year rise from a fading commercial fishing port to the principal service center of the deepwater oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. He is now scouting locations for a similar facility on the East Coast.

The East Coast is off limits to the petroleum industry until 2017, but the federal government last month opened the door to offshore exploration. Conservation groups oppose the move saying the explosions of compressed air used in the test will harm marine mammals.

Deepwater drilling takes place in water deeper than 500 feet. When the Gulf was opened to the drilling in 1995, Port Fourchon took steps to accommodate larger vessels and infrastructure needed to get the oil to refineries. Falgout said the port issued bonds to pay for dredging and pledged the increased revenue from port fees toward repayment. Once traffic increased, the Army Corps of Engineers and industry contributed to maintenance dredging, he said.

The port of Georgetown stopped getting federal funds for channel dredging as its traffic volume fell. An effort to use state and local funds to trigger Corps of Engineers participation led to the creation of a local port task force. It is chaired by Tim Tilley, who also chairs the county Economic Development Alliance, which brought Falgout and a colleague, Lori LeBlanc, to speak with county leaders last week.

The oil and gas industry is only one potential user for the port, Tilley said.

The alliance believes there will be action on the port dredging this year, said Bill Crowther, its executive director. “We think we’re there,” he said.

He first met LeBlanc, who is also a consultant to the oil and gas industry, at a forum last year sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute. He invited her to speak to Georgetown County officials and business owners. “We’re trying to educate the public about the truth of what offshore exploration can mean to South Carolina,” he said.

In Louisiana, it means jobs and tax revenue, LeBlanc said. The offshore oil industry has a $44 billion economic benefit, with a $700 billion impact when related industries are factored in, she said.

“The boom of the offshore oil and gas industry results in the boom of many other industries,” she said.

She and Falgout came to the industry with environmental backgrounds. Falgout worked for the Sea Grant in Louisiana before he was offered the port job. He was named the state’s Conservationist of the Year in 2010.

LeBlanc, the granddaughter of a coal miner and the daughter of two Exxon employees, has a degree in environmental science and was the deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

The idea that the petroleum industry degrades the coastal environment is out of date, LeBlanc said.

“We have the energy, we have the ports, we have the hunting and the fishing, and we balance it,” she said. “We can do it all.”

Falgout pointed out that Port Fourchon straddles two major estuaries. “It’s impossible to develop this area without impacting wetlands,” he said.

It also has to deal with the twin threats of subsiding delta land and rising sea levels. But he said the area around the port has been able to invest money from the petroleum industry in conservation projects.

There are 600 oil and gas platforms off Port Fourchon and each functions as an artificial reef for fish, Falgout said. There was opposition when they were built, but now there is concern about loss of habitat if they are removed, he said.

“I will probably go to my grave saying we made this a better place,” Falgout said. “With oil and gas off your coast, things like this can happen.”

Crowther said that is the message the alliance hopes to get out in Georgetown County. “You don’t have to choose between conservation and energy. You can have both and they’ve proven it in Louisiana,” he said.

But Falgout said for that to happen there has to be planning. “Who knows what can be done in this area,” he said. “Have a vision. Do it right.”

Crowther agrees that any future for Georgetown in the oil and gas industry rests in Washington. “We would love for Georgetown to be considered,” he said. “There’s a lot that would have to happen.”

He said U.S. 7th District Rep. Tom Rice and Sen. Lindsay Graham support the push for offshore drilling on the East Coast. U.S. 3rd District Rep. Jeff Duncan was among the co-sponsors of two bills last year to expand offshore drilling.

“It’s out of the hands of Georgetown, other than us putting pressure on our congressional delegation,” Crowther said. “Ted has told us it needs to be a daily conversation.”

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