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Environment: Drilling foes look to the future after winning award

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“What started it was serendipity,” said Goffinet McLaren. She and Terry Munson had been talking about organizing opposition to the proposal to end the federal ban on oil and gas drilling on the East Coast. She heard Peg Howell talk about the issue at a Sierra Club meeting and invited her to what became the first meeting of SODA, an acronym coined by Munson for Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. It was March 2015.

A year later the U.S. Department of Interior announced it would not open the Atlantic Coast to drilling. On Saturday, SODA received the award for Conservationist of the Year from the S.C. Wildlife Federation for its role in keeping the ban in place. The group is now at work to prevent the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from issuing permits to companies for seismic testing that will determine the extent of oil and gas reserves along the coast.

“It’s a reflection of how important this issue is to the state,” Mary Erickson, a SODA member, said of the award. “It isn’t SODA’s award. It’s the state’s award.”

The award is one of SODA’s few tangible assets. It isn’t a registered nonprofit or a lobbying group. It doesn’t have any formal structure. “We don’t even have a damn budget,” said Tom Stickler, a SODA member, who likened the group to Don’t Box the Neck, a citizens group that fought two successful campaigns to block plans for big-box retail stores on Highway 17 in Pawleys Island.

“That paid off. People could identify with it,” said Jim Watkins, who presided over a recent SODA meeting at the Waccamaw Library. Members noted that the group’s creation coincided with the opening of the new library, where hundreds of people filled the auditorium for SODA’s first public meeting. “We were amazed at the number of people who came,” McLaren said.

The first goal was to educate people about the process. “We were factual, not subjective,” Erickson said. “We encouraged them to ask questions.”

Sandra Bundy, a Murrells Inlet real estate broker and member of the local Surfrider chapter, got involved after hearing U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford speak at a public hearing in Mount Pleasant. He said Georgetown County wanted offshore drilling, so he supported it. “We’ve got to do something,” Bundy recalled thinking. Sanford later became a vocal opponent.

What made SODA effective was the expertise of its members. Howell has a degree in petroleum engineering and was a crew chief on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Erickson worked in the leasing end of the oil industry in Louisiana. Watkins and Jean Marie Neal worked on Capitol Hill. Munson is retired from the National Security Administration. “A lot of groups would charge ahead. They didn’t have the data we had,” Watkins said.

Ed Yaw, who retired from the Library of Congress, marshalled the data in letters to state officials. “I got nothing,” he said. Then he started writing local officials. “They went down like dominoes.” He also took SODA’s case to the editorial pages of newspapers around the state.

SODA caught the attention of Oceana, an international conservation group with a budget of nearly $20 million. “If not for Oceana, we would not be here,” Howell said. “They put people in the trenches with us.” It was Oceana that came up with the campaign to get resolutions from all the towns and cities along the coast opposing offshore drilling.

SODA also took its case to BOEM and to the state’s congressional delegation. “Many public officials expect you to go away,” Watkins said. SODA knew better.

“This is a victory for people over politics and shows the importance of old fashioned grassroots organizing,” said an Oceana official when the Obama administration decision was announced. SODA members also acknowledged that the objections from the Department of Defense played a significant role. “They pretty much ruled out the Atlantic,” Howell said. And SODA members don’t claim a lion’s share of the credit. “It was a coalition,” said Sticker, a retired engineer.

But SODA members note that their model didn’t catch on in the Charleston area, where a similar effort had about five active members. “It helps that this is a retirement community,” Howell said. Aside from Bundy, the only other people at the recent SODA meeting who weren’t retired were Amelia Thompson, an attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project, and Zach Furr, a law student at the University of South Carolina who is an intern at the law project.

The group could use more diversity, Watkins said. A younger demographic would help with another shortcoming, lack of social media savvy, Howell said. It’s important to get youth involved, Erickson said, adding, “This isn’t for us, it’s for them.”

Beyond the immediate issue of seismic testing, the offshore leases for the Atlantic Coast will come up for review again in five years. “It’s important to know this is an ongoing fight,” Erickson said. But Watkins said the group that is defined by its opposition would like to be able to say what it’s for.

“What helped SODA was that it was one issue and it stuck with that,” Neal said. Talking about the future, SODA members raise issues of climate change and alternative energy. “People are thinking big about getting off the grid,” said Howell, citing people at a solar power forum who asked about sizing their solar panels to recharge electric cars.

McLaren has campaigned against plastic waste and its impact on the oceans. Her husband, Ian, said he would be torn between that and shifting SODA’s efforts toward solar power. “The clean energy sector is growing faster than the traditional energy sector,” Yaw said.

Getting behind alternative energy could reduce the likelihood of a fight over offshore drilling in the next five-year cycle, Erickson said.

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