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Politics: Offshore drilling opponents see victory in city election

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Voters in the city of Georgetown elected three Democratic candidates to City Council this week after members of a local environmental group campaigned for them on the basis of their opposition to offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic.

Democrats Al Joseph, Sheldon Butts and Clarence Smalls soundly defeated Republicans Richard Powers, Lee Padgett and Tom Winslow.

Jean Marie Neal, spokeswoman for Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, said members of the group campaigned door-to-door and by phone for the three who said they were against drilling. Georgetown City Council passed a resolution this year opposing offshore drilling. The Republicans promised to revisit the issue if elected.

“I’m not saying SODA decided the outcome in the city elections,” Neal said. “Many factors were involved. I think the three who won were also very good candidates. The response to our message was really overwhelming. I thought people in Georgetown felt that way, but I think we helped make them realize that their vote makes a difference on this issue. The good citizens of Georgetown sent a loud message.”

Neal said opposition to offshore drilling has gained momentum nationally, too. “We may not have the Washington lobbyists and big bucks,” she said, “but we have something more important: our love of South Carolina’s coast.”

SODA founding member Peg Howell of North Litchfield spoke Wednesday at a rally at the U.S. Capitol. As a former petroleum engineer who worked for Chevron, she was invited to speak by the Sea Party Coalition, a bipartisan group of about 60 organizations against drilling in the Atlantic. South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford was another speaker Wednesday.

On a state level, the Consumer Energy Alliance hosted a forum on offshore drilling in Columbia Wednesday. Representatives from the oil industry, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s office and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management were expected on the panel along with Hamilton Davis of the Coastal Conservation League. None of the 23 municipalities in the state that have opposed oil and gas drilling offshore were represented. SODA members Tom Stickler and Ed Yaw attended the forum.

Howell told members of the Winyah Chapter of the Sierra Club Monday that drilling in the South Atlantic puts the state’s tourism industry at risk by threatening the coast’s environmental health. “If oil and gas are drilled off our shores, it will be exported,” she said. “There are essentially no benefits for South Carolinians.”

On Wednesday, she told the Sea Party Coalition that being silent on the drilling issue is equal to accepting it. “Opening up the Atlantic to offshore seismic testing and drilling will forever harm the beauty of our coast,” she said. “The potential damage to the ocean, our marshes, beaches and homes is not worth the risks that come from exploring, producing and transporting oil and gas. The onshore industrialization that comes with offshore drilling will be a blight on our communities and damage our already fragile infrastructure and environment. The unfounded promises from the petroleum industry are minor compared to the lost tourism income. Everywhere the oil and gas companies have drilled, there have been spills. We don’t want this to be our legacy.” Also attending the rally were SODA member Goffinet McLaren from Litchfield Beach and Don’t Drill S.C. Lowcountry member Alice Morrisey of Sullivans Island.

Howell said state residents can expect an ad campaign and promises about the benefits of offshore drilling. “But those promises are nothing more than empty promises,” she said. “The truth is that any money coming into our state from the oil and gas industry will be miniscule compared to the tourism dollars.”

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