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Environment: Feds move forward with offshore oil leasing

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The Atlantic oil and natural gas drilling debate just got real.

Off-limits for more than three decades, federal waters off South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia are included in a leasing plan that would begin in 2021 proposed by federal regulators this week.

Bill Crowther, executive director of the Alliance for Economic Development in Georgetown County, said he was pleased that South Carolina was included in the federal “draft proposed plan” announced Tuesday by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management director Abigail Hopper. “We are in a comment period now,” Crowther said. “They’ll listen to folks for it and folks against it. We’ll see how it moves down the road.” A 60-day public comment period will end March 28. Next comes a “proposed program” and another public comment period, and then a “proposed final program” and a period for congressional review.

Crowther said the proposal of a 50-mile buffer between the coast and any drilling activity was added at the request of the governor of Virginia. “You don’t have to go that far out,” he said.

Environmental groups pointed to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in assessing the risk to the state’s $4.4 billion tourism and fishing industries. “At best, offshore drilling is a gamble for South Carolina. At worst, it is a reckless disregard for what makes this state such a great place to live,” said Hamilton Davis, energy program director for the Coastal Conservation League. “We will be working to ensure the public and our elected officials understand the implications of this proposal.”

Brian Tucker, Georgetown County’s economic development director, said the decision was expected. What’s still unknown is how much oil or gas is offshore. “We know what the risks are, we don’t know what the upside is,” Tucker said.

In the meantime, the county is having “good conversations” with new businesses, Tucker said, some that would use the port. The oil industry is seen as a potential user, but he said that isn’t something the county is planning on at the moment.

Davis said the BP spill in 2010 shows how much damage can be done to the coastline. “Therefore, any drilling allowed on the Atlantic OCS represents a threat to the South Carolina coast,” he said. “The impact of seismic testing on marine mammals, fisheries, other sea life and the surrounding ecosystem is also of serious concern.”

In July, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved the controversial use of loud air blasts from underwater sonic guns to find oil and gas deposits off South Carolina. The bureau’s approval allowed companies to pursue permits, signaling an end to a moratorium.

A September 2013 Harris Interactive poll found that 77 percent of state residents supported offshore oil and gas drilling. Those polled were a roughly even mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

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