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Offshore drilling: House panel looks for common gound
By Emily Topper
Five companies have filed permits for seismic surveying in the Atlantic, including tests off of the coast of South Carolina. Environmentalists, business leaders and legislators wonder if there is a way to limit the impact of offshore drilling along the state’s coast while working with oil advocates.
“If we can get the petroleum industry to agree to force the technology to come up with a testing procedure that has very minimalistic impact on marine life, and if we can get the industry to tell BOEM to require only one exploration that everybody would have to share instead of five of them for a whole year, we’d have something to talk about,” Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said.
Knapp, Peg Howell of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) and Bonnie Loomis, director of the S.C. Petroleum Council were tasked with coming up with a potential agreement regarding surveying by state Rep. Bill Hixon, who chairs the House ad hoc committee on offshore drilling.
“We want to see if we can come up with something as a state to at least show the U.S. government that this is what we agreed to in our state,” Hixon said at a hearing last week. “We have a bill for it and we have a bill against it, and we can’t do anything until we come back in 2018. We want to do what’s right. We aren’t far off on what we’re all trying to do.”
The hope is that, if South Carolina lawmakers could come up with a bill that balances the concerns of environmentalists with the proposals from the oil business, that the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) would listen to the state’s input.
South Carolina has jurisdiction over only 3 miles off the coast. Potential drilling would take place in federal waters.
Until recently, the conversation on offshore drilling in that part of the Atlantic had been off limits. In his final month in office, former President Obama had placed a ban on new offshore drilling in the area. In late April, President Trump signed an executive order opening up the areas off the East Coast.
“President Trump’s executive order in April opened up everything,” Loomis said. “I think it better enables us to have active input into a process that was really off the table for a long time.”
The last time that the Atlantic had exploration was 30 years ago. Many coastal leaders in the state are against offshore drilling, but they are unsure of the impact a united front will have on the federal government.
“It’s just a matter of how much input the federal government wants to have from the state, and how much weight it will apply to the state’s comments,” Rep. Lee Hewitt, who serves on the ad hoc committee, said. “There are a lot of concerns from those that don’t even live on the coast on what kind of impact it could have throughout the whole state.”
Oil companies are primarily interested in drilling along the eastern Gulf. However, stock prices of oil companies can rise when reserves go from potential to proven, creating an interest in surveying in the Atlantic.
The seismic testing process uses air blasts to determine sound waves, which are bounced off of underground rock formations in the ocean. Because the seismic testing must be done within the course of a year, the companies would run their tests concurrently.
“I believe seismic is coming,” Loomis said. “I believe that the permits will be issued early in 2018. I think that we owe it to ourselves to work to manage that change.”
There are an estimated 4.6 billion barrels of oil off the coast of the Atlantic.
“There’s about 5.1 billion barrels spilled in the Gulf,” Hewitt said. “So there’s been about as much spilled in the Gulf as we have off the Atlantic.”
Drilling proponents boast economic opportunity, revenue and job creation. A 2013 study conducted by the American Petroleum Institute said that South Carolina would earn $3.7 million from offshore drilling in the Atlantic between 2017 to 2035 and create 35,000 new jobs.
According to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, the state has a $20.2 billion tourism industry that supports one out of every 10 jobs.
When the API study was published in December 2013, crude oil was priced at $103.96 per barrel. In October, the price per barrel was $54.38.
Howell, a former petroleum engineer, refuted the study and said that drilling was not a smart economic decision.
“To expose the Atlantic to offshore drilling and seismic testing is, as our Gov. McMaster said, ‘Killing the goose that laid the golden egg,’ ” Howell said. “The United States doesn’t need the Atlantic’s oil and gas to achieve or maintain our energy dominance. Drilling in the Atlantic is not about energy dominance.
“It’s about oil companies having access to oil and gas reserves so they can increase their revenue and process through exports. Seismic is not harmless, it does not definitively find oil and it is the first step toward drilling. It’s a terrible economic decision. It’s extremely risky to our coastal economy, our health, our children’s future and our way of life.”
Hewitt said that his constituents have tended to agree. Every coastal county and municipality has passed a resolution opposing offshore oil and gas drilling. He sent in his comments of opposition to BOEM in late July.
Loomis told the committee that the interests of the state were a priority.
“We want to be here doing this the South Carolina way,” she said. “But the challenge is that the authority doesn’t rest here. That’s the challenge.”
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