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Offshore drilling: Pawleys Island opposes oil drilling, but omits gas

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island Town Council voted this week to oppose oil drilling off the South Carolina coast. It didn’t mention natural gas.

Mayor Bill Otis, who drafted the proclamation opposing oil drilling, cited the concerns of property owners raised at the annual meeting of the Pawleys Island Civic Association this month and a Senate bill that would allow facilities closer than the 50-mile limit proposed by the Department of Interior. “Though I still am not convinced, either pro or con, on very far offshore Atlantic coast oil drilling, two recent things have convinced me that I should oppose it off South Carolina,” he said.

The Senate bill, passed by committee in July, allows leases within 30 miles of the coast in consultation with the various governors about restrictions to mitigate impacts on “viewshed.” The Interior Department can consider limiting production facilities above the waterline within 12 miles.

Otis called the fact that the committee approved facilities that close to shore “at best totally irresponsible, and at worst scary.”

He introduced a proclamation, explaining later that a resolution has a specific legal meaning. Practically, there’s no difference, he said. “It shows the intent of council.”

Asked about the omission of gas drilling and production, Otis said, “the comments at council have to stand on their own.”

JeanMarie Neal, a member of the group SODA that is organizing opposition to offshore drilling, said she doesn’t think leaving gas out of the proclamation undercuts its message. “That is very interesting,” she added.

Caroline Alday, seventh-generation island property owner, was one of three people who spoke to the council before the vote. She was concerned that the town hadn’t taken a position to oppose drilling. “I wanted us to be on the record,” she said.

She didn’t notice that gas drilling wasn’t included, but did have the sense that the council was “reluctant” to deal with the issue.

Mary Schneider, an island property owner who also organizes volunteer sea turtle monitoring, told the council she was concerned about drilling and about the effect of seismic testing on marine life. “Are you preparing the next generation to protect Pawleys Island?” she asked the council.

Seismic testing wasn’t part of the town proclamation either. Phil Schneider, her husband and a sea turtle volunteer, said afterward they were so happy by the Town Council decision that they didn’t notice.

The proclamation notes that there is a difference of opinion on the drilling: “Proponents say it can be done safely, help reduce dependence on foreign energy and create U.S. jobs and revenue”; “Opponents of offshore drilling worry that accidents could damage fisheries and the important coastal tourism industry.”

Council Member Mike Adams agreed inshore drilling was “scary.” He doesn’t oppose drilling 50 miles offshore. “I know that’s not a popular opinion, but it’s my opinion,” he said.

Council Member Howard Ward said he once worked for Exxon and doesn’t oppose drilling at 50 miles, “but 12 miles? That’s dangerous.”

Ward wondered about the Senate committee action. “Why would they even think about that?” he asked. “Are they doing it to ensure the bill would be killed?”

Council Member Glennie Tarbox pointed out that past tests showed that natural gas is the most likely product off the South Carolina coast. He said he recently read there is already a 100-year supply.

With the proclamation, Pawleys Island joins 21 other local governments along the state’s coast that oppose drilling. “It really mattered a lot,” Neal said. People noticed that the town was missing, she said.

To oppose oil drilling has the same effect on gas drilling. “Anybody who knows the process knows they go hand in hand,” Neal said. “They come out of the same well head.”

The town is also concerned about the federal government’s plans to lease sites offshore for wind energy turbines. Last year, the council adopted a resolution opposing turbines that can be seen from the island. But a plan released last week by the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management puts lease sites within 3 miles of the island. “It will obliterate the view,” said Otis, who is a member of the state wind energy task force.

The town will raise objections with the bureau on three fronts: the impact on the historic district, the impact on tourism and the impact on shorebirds. Town Administrator Ryan Fabbri spoke with historic preservation officials at a task force meeting in Litchfield last week and said they were interested in the town’s concerns.

“I’m not one of those people who say ‘Not in My Back Yard,’ ” Adams said. But it has to be far enough in my back yard not to impact me so dramatically.”

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