050417 Offshore oil: Drilling opponents prepare for another fight
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Offshore oil: Drilling opponents prepare for another fight


By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

Last week President Donald Trump signed an executive order purposed to expand offshore drilling for oil and gas. This action renewed local opposition of oil and gas drilling and seismic testing off the Atlantic coast. Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) sprang into action before the order was signed.

“Their goal is, no ifs, ands or buts, to come up with a new five year plan that finds additional areas for drilling and you can bet that South Carolina will be on that list,” JeanMarie Neal, a member of the SODA leadership, said.

In 2016, the Obama administration banned offshore drilling in large parts of the Atlantic Ocean, but the area covered by the five-year plan does not extend to South Carolina shores. The state was a part of the previous administration’s first draft offshore drilling plan for the South Atlantic region until the coastal region vehemently objected.

“All the coastal mayors are working together and saying no, that’s powerful,” Neal said. “Then you add to it that Gov. McMaster doesn’t support drilling. Then the third element is people. We’ve got to have them write letters, we’ve got to have them make phone calls.”

A review of the 2017-2022 plan is under way by the Department of the Interior. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said there is no predetermined map of development for its five year Outer Continental Shelf program. “We’re going to look at everything and make sure the policies are appropriate for each local community, rather than force a Washington-driven one-size-fits-all plan,” he said in a press release issued Monday.

Jim Watkins, Pawleys Island resident and chair of SODA team leadership, believes Zinke’s idea of listening to local municipalities is the only good news in this situation. “What we’ve got to do is hold them to that,” he said.

The town of Pawleys Island and city of Georgetown are two coastal municipalities that passed resolutions in 2015 opposing oil drilling and/or seismic testing. “The seismic testing and the drilling go hand in hand,” Neal said. “If you don’t want drilling, then you don’t want seismic testing.”

Seismic testing is a process that builds an image of the subsurface that can determine if oil and gas reserves are present. A seismic air gun is used in the ocean for testing. The gun releases blasts of compressed air beneath the water’s surface and the sounds are recorded on an arranged series of hydrophones to create the seismic reflection image. The testing process, which happens every 10 seconds for weeks on end, threatens the dolphins and whales that make their home on our shores, Watkins said. “They rely on sound to feed, mate and travel,” he said. “It’s a matter of explosions like a hand grenade going on, and I know hand grenades because I was an infantry officer in the U.S. Army.”

The previous administration denied six permits for Atlantic seismic testing in January, but the companies reapplied under new federal leadership. Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast and South Carolina Environmental Law Project have filed appeals with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to stop the permits.

“Scientific studies have shown that seismic blasting injures and drives away marine life, including marketable fish species, which the 500,000 commercial fishing families in BAPAC rely upon for their livelihood,” Amelia Thompson, staff attorney for the law project said in a statement. “BAPAC seeks to intervene based upon the financial losses that businesses along the Atlantic Coast will suffer due to seismic blasting’s impact on fishing, recreation and tourism, which form a huge economy.”

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville opposes offshore drilling and seismic testing. He and the city council passed a bipartisan unanimous resolution April 2015 in opposition when offshore drilling came into question. “I think it’s a terrible idea,” Scoville said. “It’s not a question of potential damage, sooner or later there will be a significant oil spill.”

Scoville worries about the economic impact a spill would have on the county. He believes a spill would ravage the estuaries, sports fishing, tourism and commercial fishing industries beyond repair. The Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill cost the Louisiana fishing industry $94.7 million in 2010 alone. The long term effects are still in question. “This is a Grand Strand issue, a coast issue, a Lowcountry issue,” he said. “It’d be bad enough for the people in Greenville, but it’d be devastating to us.”

Another economic consideration is property values. It was estimated that properties across Florida, a state not as directly affected by the spill, lost $4.3 million in values and are only recently recovering. “I’ll tell you everybody that owns these resorts and owns these rental homes, they better get involved in this,” Neal said. “They have a lot financially at stake.”

Neal moved to Pawleys Island in 2015. She grew up in South Carolina, her family is from here. After she went to college, she moved to Washington D.C. for her career. Neal never doubted she’d return to her home state, but now that she and her husband, Greg Farmer, are here she wonders whether they should have moved. “My husband and I did not know about the drilling draft plan that had South Carolina in it,” Neal said. “I asked Greg the other day if we would have moved here if we had known this was looming.”

Whether it makes sense in terms of national security or economically, Watkins, a retired Presbyterian minister, believes that humankind is called to live in harmony with nature. It’s why he’s involved with SODA. “I truly believe we are called to be stewards of creation,” he said. “We’re called to be good stewards and not dominate creation. We could wind up destroying something.”

SODA is scheduled to hold a press conference today to bring attention to the issue.

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