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Environment: Drilling ban stops short of S.C. coast

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Opponents of oil and gas development off the South Carolina coast say they are deeply disappointed in not being included in President Obama’s permanent ban of drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans announced this week. The action in the Atlantic includes 3.8 million acres from New England to the Chesapeake Bay and 115 million in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.

“We have turned this disappointment into a renewed call for action,” said Peg Howell of North Litchfield, a former supervisor on offshore oil rigs and critic of the plan to lease drilling sites off the coasts of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia. “We will use the window of protection we have under the exclusion from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s 2017-22 leasing program to continue to educate citizens in South Atlantic states about the real dangers to our economy, coast and marine life from offshore oil and gas drilling and seismic testing.” The Obama administration removed the South Atlantic from the next five-year lease plan this year.

“We will support increased scientific research in the South Atlantic,” Howell said, “and we will continue to meet with elected officials to advocate for continued protection. We are encouraged that soon-to-be S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster is opposed to offshore drilling.”

Jean Marie Neal, also of North Litchfield and spokeswoman for the group Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, said Department of the Interior focused on “environmental hot spots,” 31 underwater canyons in the Atlantic that need immediate and long lasting protection. “This decision was based entirely on scientific data,” she said.

The withdrawn area in the Atlantic extends from Heezen Canyon off New England’s coast to Norfolk Canyon offshore of the Chesapeake Bay. The largest, Hudson Canyon, reaches depths greater than 10,000 feet. The canyons are regions of enhanced biodiversity, home to numerous species, including deep-water corals, deep-diving beaked whales, commercially valuable fish, and significant numbers of habitat-forming soft and hard corals, sponges and crabs.

“The focus for SODA will be to fight even harder to make sure the current plan from the Interior Department does not change,” Neal said. “The Atlantic was removed from the five-year plan based on economic concerns and strong opposition from area residents, all coastal mayors in South Carolina, the commercial fishing industry and many others.”

Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce in Columbia, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the decision not to extend protections to the entire Atlantic seaboard. Knapp and his group were among a number of business groups arguing that the environmental impacts of drilling would hurt fishing, tourism and other businesses. He met Obama administration officials and believed the entire Atlantic was to be protected.

Sierra Weaver, leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s coast and wetlands program, said the rest of the Southeast coast is just as environmentally and economically valuable and deserving of protection. “The message from coastal communities and businesses,” she said, “could not be louder or clearer: We do not want offshore drilling. Not just for the next five years but for all time.”

Weaver said more than 120 coastal cities and towns from New Jersey to Florida and hundreds of businesses, trade groups and tourism associations have passed resolutions opposing Atlantic drilling and seismic testing.

Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute said the decision ignores congressional intent, national security and job opportunities.

“This proposal would take us in the wrong direction just as we have become world leader in production and refining of oil and natural gas and in reduction of carbon emissions,” he said. “Blocking offshore exploration weakens our national security, destroys good-paying jobs and could make energy less affordable for consumers. Fortunately, there is no such thing as a permanent ban, and we look forward to working with the new administration on fulfilling the will of American voters on energy production.”

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