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Environment: Offshore drilling benefits exaggerated, opponents say

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The oil industry has grossly overestimated the money and jobs that will come to South Carolina with offshore oil and natural gas drilling, a former Chevron drilling crew chief told an overflow crowd at the Waccamaw Neck Library’s auditorium this week.

Peg Howell, the first woman to have the job known as “company man” on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, said the $3.7 billion proposed from drilling rights will be collected by the federal government under present law and only a small fraction of the estimated 35,000 jobs will go to South Carolinians.

Howell, wife of Georgetown County Council Member John Thomas of North Litchfield, said the Quest Report, published by the oil and gas industry, used the entire Atlantic coast rather than the four states that applied for leasing, moved exploration ahead of schedule by six years, estimated drilling an unprecedented 30 wells a year and pulled reserve estimates “out of the sky.”

“The nature of drilling is highly risky, involving some of the most highly trained personnel in the world” said Howell, who left the oil business and got an MBA from Harvard in 1984 to become a business consultant and executive coach. “They don’t put newbies on an exploratory rig. Oil field workers are nomads. They go where the work is. They will not be staying here or spending money in South Carolina on their days off.”

Howell said the estimates of 11,000 people working on the rigs is not a valid number, and the 24,000 jobs in hotels, restaurants, retail, health care, real estate and food service won’t be created by people flying home when they have time off.

The claim that the state will get $3.7 billion came from estimates of what four Gulf states have been granted from new leases, rents and royalties. “It started in 2006 when the president said maybe those states should get something for all this nastiness going on offshore. The states were to get 37.5 percent of new leases, annual rent and royalties capped at $375 million a year. “People in Washington,” she said, “feel really bad that they give that money away and in the fiscal 2017 budget the administration says we made a mistake some years ago and we are going to be keeping all that money much to the dismay of those four states in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Revenue sharing does not exist, she said. “In fact, that number is zero.” A legislator is planning to introduce a bill so South Carolina will get oil and natural gas revenues. “I wish him a lot of luck,” she added.

The meeting at the library — attendance estimates were between 250 and 300 people — was sponsored by a local group called Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic. Those attending were encouraged to write to the Bureau of Energy Management by the end of its comment period March 30. More than 500 people signed a petition against oil drilling off the state’s coast.

Howell said she worries about tar balls washing up on the beach at North Litchfield if drilling is approved. “If anybody ever asks you if it’s risky to live on a drilling rig or live offshore, I can tell you from many personal experiences it’s some of the riskiest things I have ever done in my life.”

She told of seeing fear in men’s eyes when a rig began to capsize while being moved and the dangers associated with evacuating for a hurricane.

“If nothing else happens,” she said, “it will result in oil and gas drilling off our coast. During this process we can remove the amount of land available for leasing, maybe to zero.”

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