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Offshore drilling: Three perspectives on the debate

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Opponents map out a political strategy

Politics is driving the discussion on oil and natural gas exploration off the coast of South Carolina, according to Coastal Conservation League energy director Harrison Davis.

“One of the most important points to understand,” Davis told members of the Winyah Chapter of the Sierra Club recently, “is this is an incredibly politically charged discussion. A lot of times the discussion moves away from fact and more toward political ideology.” Davis said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham was opposed to offshore drilling in 2006. “In three years he flip-flopped and is now a big advocate of offshore-drilling, connecting to things like energy security,” Davis said.

Politicians say they want to see what’s out there before making a decision, Davis said. Information collected through seismic testing for oil and gas reserves is proprietary and will not be shared with the public. Private companies give the data to federal regulatory agencies but sell it to oil companies. “We are being asked to trust,” Davis said, “based on the feds making a decision in the best interest of South Carolina and other East Coast states as to where oil and gas development takes place.” He said that was the reason U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford has opposed oil and gas exploration off the state’s coast. It cuts the states and the public out of any cost-benefit analysis. “Even if you are comfortable with seismic testing — it’s a real attractive talking point for folks in favor of drilling — we are not going to look and see what’s out there and contribute to the discussion.” Davis said he favors having the federal government do seismic testing and keeping the public informed of the findings.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has issued the first permit for seismic testing without further public hearings despite 300 requests. There’s widespread disagreement about the impact. “We are concerned about mating, communication and feeding habits of marine mammals, fisheries and sea turtles,” Davis said. He called suggestions there have not been any population impacts misleading. “That’s technically true that we haven’t seen a species go extinct or become endangered or threatened as a consequence of seismic testing,” he said. “We do know that impacts are extensive.” Seventy-five scientists have sent the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Management a letter stating they disagree with its findings and see widespread harm to marine species. “We’ve never seen testing of this scale done anywhere,” Davis said.

Sierra Club president Bo Ives suggested using clearer language regarding the impact: “an acceptable level of annihilation of mammals.”

Davis said environmental damage remains the biggest concern about admitting the oil industry into the Atlantic. “We are hearing what we heard just before the BP spill,” he said, “the industry is safe. There’s nothing to worry about; we are heavily regulated; there are lots of laws in place. Clearly it’s not been adequate to prevent disasters like the Gulf of Mexico having 200 million gallons of oil for a month. It’s the poster child for what can go wrong.”

Minor spills are part of the day-to-day operations of the oil industry, Davis said. They occur in storage facilities, refineries and pipelines. He said the Taylor Oil Platform in the Gulf of Mexico has been leaking for a decade. “It’s a liability that we would have to live with,” he said. “You have to bring this product on to shore, and there’s no good place to do it in South Carolina. You are talking about fisheries, estuaries, wetlands, seabirds and coastal quality of life. An almost endless list of threats come along with the industry. There is no clean way to develop oil and gas. It’s a dirty business.”

Claims of energy security and cheaper gas prices are arguments being made by proponents of drilling. “Current data we have doesn’t support that,” Davis said. “We know there’s very little oil and gas in the Atlantic. He said estimates are of a six-day oil and gas supply for the nation off the state’s coast and a 132-day supply of oil and 283-day supply of natural gas off the Atlantic coast. “That’s a very small amount in the broader scheme,” he said.

Economic development leader becomes industry advocate

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Bill Crowther has left the Georgetown Economic Development Alliance after three years for an organization working as an advocate for the energy industry.

As president of the Atlantic Energy Alliance, Crowther said he will provide a voice for proponents of oil and natural gas exploration off the South Carolina coast while promoting wind and solar energy as part of an all-of-the-above strategy.

“Our primary focus,” Crowther said, “will be as an advocate for offshore energy exploration and production. We realize there are no proponents active. We’ve got a lot of people who are opposed to the industry, and they have been loud and making a lot of noise. There’s nobody talking on behalf of the supporters. There have been several surveys done. I saw one from a political analyst saying 65 percent of the residents of South Carolina support oil and gas drilling. That goes hand in hand with what I find talking to people on the street.”

Crowther said the Atlantic Energy Alliance would be financed by industry, nonprofits and groups that support energy growth. “We have a lot of very, very strong support,” he said.

With Crowther’s departure, the Georgetown County Economic Development Alliance will undergo a number of organizational changes. Most significantly, it will not hire another executive director. Directors have chosen to focus on transportation — widening Highway 521 and dredging the Georgetown port — and workforce improvements as goals while working more closely with Brian Tucker, director of economic development for Georgetown County.

“With Brian Tucker driving that operation,” Crowther said, “I think we’ll see some really strong economic development activity going forward. One of the things in the past, was a perception there was not a lot of activity. It’s one of the reasons the alliance came into being. Since Brian’s been on board, there’s been a complete change. Now the alliance is more aligned with the county.”

Perry Collins, chairman of the alliance board, said Crowther’s departure creates an opportunity. ““Bill has served our organization well over the last several years and we wish him the best,” he said. “While Bill will be missed, every change can create an opportunity to be better. That is our approach moving forward and we are excited about the path ahead. Our current board is as strong and committed as any board on which I have ever served.”

Former alliance chairman Tim Tilley said the county will be speaking with one voice on economic development. “This will mean a more unified approach to economic development,” he said.

Tucker said the county would provide the alliance with administrative support and clerical help through his office, and the new structure provides private sector investors and the county an opportunity to work together. “We recognize the need for existing industries to have a voice in what happens in economic development,” Tucker said. “Existing industries are our best sales tool. The alliance is a conduit for industries to talk to existing industries.

“Every project, whether an expansion of an existing company or a new company moving into the area, has a number of moving parts, and the alliance’s new structure brings everyone together to ensure that we are all pulling in the same direction.”

Town of Pawleys Island unlikely to join others in opposition

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Thirteen cities and towns along the South Carolina coast have passed resolutions opposed to offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling. The town of Pawleys Island isn’t likely to make that 14.

“Some of them wanted to meet with me and explain why the town should take a position,” Mayor Bill Otis said. He declined. “They’re only repeating what’s already been said. Both sides are repeating what’s already been said.”

When Congress first proposed lifting a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on the Atlantic Coast in 2008, he supported it. “The interest of the United States and all its citizens has to come first,” he said at the time.

His position didn’t change after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago. The issue was still energy independence, he said.

Now, “my personal inclination is to come out for gas drilling. I’m on the fence about oil drilling,” Otis said this week.

As a local official, he serves on a state task force created by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to study renewable energy. That’s been a source of information about oil and gas drilling as well. “It’s akin to the wind thing, which is also very complex,” Otis said. “I think I’m more educated than I was.”

Although Otis gets e-mail from opponents of offshore drilling, none have spoken to Town Council about the issue in the comment period at its monthly meetings. He doesn’t have a sense of urgency. “Based on the timeline, this part of the state has more time for that to be considered,” Otis said.

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