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Offshore drilling: Congressman’s middle road leaves both sides optimistic

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

U.S. Rep. Tom Rice says he will not support oil drilling off the shores of South Carolina unless there is a 50-mile buffer zone as recommended by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the state gets a 37.5 percent royalty.

All the revenue from oil and natural gas produced in the Atlantic would go to the federal government under existing policy, but revenue sharing is being proposed in some legislation to offset opposition to drilling by municipalities along the South Carolina coast, according to members of the Georgetown County group Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic. “I think if drilling happens in the Atlantic, it will include revenue sharing,” said JeanMarie Neal, a SODA member.

She thinks Rice is trying to straddle the oil drilling fence. He attended a field hearing in New Orleans last week on the state of offshore oil and gas activity in the Gulf of Mexico and touted its benefits. “The region, as well as the entire nation, has experienced significant benefits from the growth in offshore energy production,” he said. “We have a lot to learn from the experts in the Gulf about the possible benefits and risks before making any decisions on how to proceed in the Atlantic.”

Neal said the true test for Rice will come over the 50-mile buffer in the Atlantic, which is adamantly opposed by the oil industry and eliminated in legislation pushed through the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman. That committee also passed legislation eliminating a 40-year ban on exportation of U.S. crude oil in anticipation of new drilling in the Atlantic.

Murkowski’s bill, the Offshore Production and Energizing National Security Act, called OPENS, does exactly that – opens new U.S. markets and relaxes standards on drilling in some already existing markets. The legislation includes a section called the “Southern Atlantic Energy Security Act” which mandates oil and gas drilling off the shores of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia. The four South Atlantic states were already part of a draft plan for exploration from the federal Bureau of Ocean Management in the U.S. Interior Department.

The BOEM draft says no drilling off the South Carolina coast can take place within 50 miles of the shoreline. Murkowski’s bill has no buffer, potentially opening up the drilling area to all federal waters off the four South Atlantic states to just three miles offshore at the state’s water boundary.

“It would be awful to have a serious spill 50 miles off coast,” said North Litchfield Beach resident Peg Howell, “and devastating to have a spill closer to shore. The buffer would at least add some protection to help protect fishing, swimming, boating and marine life. The oil and gas industry does not want a buffer. Sen. Murkowski is widely known as the industry point person in the Senate. The industry really showed their hand when they asked for seismic testing to be done up to three miles off shore.” Howell, a former petroleum engineer, is spokesperson for Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic.

S.C. Sen. Tim Scott is a co-sponsor of a bill offered by Va. Sen. Mark Warner, the Southern Atlantic Energy Security Act. “This bill was taken by Sen. Murkowski,” Neal said. “Warner sets revenue sharing at 50 percent; Murkowski changed it to 37.5 percent for the states. So Scott is the sponsor of the bill that is now part of Murkowski’s bill which mandates drilling off the Atlantic coast, and has no provisions for a buffer zone as did the draft plan from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.”

Neal also said the Murkowski bill provides federal funding for research and studies for two universities in each of the four Atlantic states. The University of South Carolina is the front-runner for the funds, and representatives of the school are speaking for the oil industry. She said Dr. James Knapp spoke to the Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors recently.

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