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Offshore drilling: Corks pop as East Coast remains off limits

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Peg Howell raised a paper cup of Champagne on the beach at North Litchfield Tuesday in a toast to the little people who objected to drilling for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean.

Members of SODA — Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic — were celebrating an announcement made by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell that areas off the shores of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia would not be opened to oil leasing. Members of the group had gotten word that something big was coming from Washington, but they exploded in cheers at the home of Howell and her husband, John Thomas, a member of Georgetown County Council, when the news was official. “People were just ecstatic,” said Jean Marie Neal, the SODA spokeswoman.

Howell, a former offshore rig boss for Chevron, began the local movement to stop drilling in the Atlantic with a speech at the Waccamaw Library more than a year ago. She disputed claims being made about jobs and economic benefits to the states as well as industry statements that oil spills are less likely now. She said oil drilling is a dirty business and didn’t want to see tar balls and globs of oil on South Carolina shores. Even without a disaster like the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, she said industrialization and pollution would harm beaches — and the state’s biggest industry, tourism.

National environmental groups, such as Oceana, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, quickly applauded the Obama administration’s decision. They shared the credit for the pressure brought to bear with individual citizens and municipal governments.

Jewell said the decision was made “after robust public input” that included more than a million comments, most expressing opposition, and input from more than 60 groups. But she added that concerns for commercial fishing and national defense, as well as public opposition and market conditions drove it. The decision does not end the leasing process for seismic testing and exploratory drilling, but profit for that work is in fees paid by oil industry companies, and the lease applications are widely expected to be dropped.

All the heavy hitters came late to the protest, Neal said. Opposition bubbled up from the bottom, answering the eternal chicken-and-egg question about which came first, the grass-roots protesters or the professional environmentalists. “This is so rare,” said Neal, a former chief of staff for two U.S. senators. “We had no elected officials with us other than Mark Sanford and Jim Clyburn. That was it. The governor was on the other side. It’s very rare to overcome odds like that. When Josh Earnest did his daily briefing at the White House, he paid credit to all the resolutions and coastal community opposition as one of the reasons.”

Surprising opposition by the Navy may have pushed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management over the edge. Director Abigail Hopper told members of Congress that the Department of Defense uses some of the lease areas and has “significant concerns” with the proposed oil and natural gas work. Environmentalists have opposed the Navy’s sonar training for fear of harm to marine life but welcomed it to the fray.

Oil industry supporters weren’t buying the theory that the Navy tipped the balance against drilling. “The use of our nation’s military in justifying this decision is a red herring,” said Randall Lothi, the National Ocean Industries Association president.

“Military and oil and natural gas activities have co-existed for years in the Gulf of Mexico. By removing the Atlantic sale (leases), we are saying the military and industry can’t figure out a way to make it work. That doesn’t even come close to passing the red-face test.”

American Petroleum Industry CEO Jack Gerard said the administration’s offshore oil and natural gas policy is inconsistent with the will of American voters, governors and members of Congress. “The decision,” he said, “appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production.”

Terry Munson of Heritage Plantation said the low price of oil will suppress some of the protests over the Obama administration’s decision to remove the Atlantic from leasing. “When oil goes back up,” he said, “holy hell will break out again. When it starts appearing to politicians the money is there again and they start getting paid off, they will get back in.”

Munson said Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Senators Tim Scott and Lindsay Graham are influenced by “Big Oil.”

Munson and Tom Stickler, a Hagley resident, did an economic study showing the petroleum industry’s promises of income and jobs were vastly overstated. Further, it showed the region’s established economy based on tourism and fishing eclipsed even the inflated projections for drilling jobs.

The potential of any boost to employment was enough to attract an array of supporters. Stephen Gilchrist, president of the South Carolina African-American Chamber of Commerce, called the decision a loss for the state. “Instead of creating high wage, year round local jobs in some of the coastal areas that need them the most,” he said, “BOEM is allowing misinformation and fear tactics to slam the door on a developing portion of the American energy renaissance by stifling significant business development, job creation, economic growth and potential revenue that could be used for education and infrastructure improvements in some of our poorest communities in South Carolina.”

Haley worked largely behind the scenes with industry lobbyists to urge federal officials in the Obama administration to open the Southeast coast to oil and natural gas testing and drilling. She maintained adamant support even as opposition grew.

“No one ever wanted to do anything to harm our coastline,” she said Tuesday. “Tourism is too huge to South Carolina to take that chance. But at least explore what the possibilities are. And what happened was D.C. just shut us down from being able to have those possibilities. It’s one more time they said they were going to do something and didn’t follow through with it.”

Ian McLaren of Litchfield welcomed the five-year delay before a leasing process can start again for the Atlantic. “It will be an even more difficult equation for oil companies to start five years from now with production in 10 to 20 years,” he said. “Renewables are gaining ground every year in terms of scale. I’m hoping that’s another reason this will quietly go away in five years.”

Munson predicted Obama will make more controversial decisions in the remaining months of his term. “This was a fairly courageous act on his part,” Munson said. “He’s going to make a lot of aggressive moves in the next nine months. He doesn’t personally have anything to lose.”

Howell handed out the last of the SODA T-shirts on the beach Tuesday as the celebration wound down. She had a word of caution to her supporters. “We all have to continue to be vigilant,” she said, “because BOEM’s responsibility is to examine this every five years. Congress can do things in between. It’s really important for all of us to pay attention.”

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