020118 Offshore oil: Opponents want to raise impact of public comments
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Peg Howell answers questions at the SODA rally this week.

Offshore oil: Opponents want to raise impact of public comments

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

After three years of campaigning against oil and gas drilling off the South Carolina coast, Peg Howell made a rookie mistake.

She was among more than 815,000 people who sent comments to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management when it began drawing up a new five-year leasing plan for the Outer Continental Shelf. She was among about 3,000 people who didn’t send form letters, but she wasn’t one whose comment was summarized in the agency’s draft proposal.

“Shame on me,” Howell said. “When I submitted my comment, I didn’t put ‘Peg Howell, spokesperson for SODA.’ ”

A former petroleum engineer and “company man” on a Gulf oil rig, Howell read the bureau’s current draft leasing plan closely, noting changes between it and the 2015 proposal that the citizens group Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic successfully opposed. Along the way, she realized that it isn’t who you are, but who you represent that counts.

As SODA campaigns to overturn the federal government’s proposal that would begin the sale of leases for oil and gas exploration off South Carolina it is trying to make sure citizen comments make the most impact. A rally this week packed the Waccamaw Library auditorium, with each person receiving a one-page sheet explaining how they can comment along with a list of talking points about the risks to the coastal environment and its economy.

“If you sign a petition, that’s nice. You’re a number. If you write a letter that says anything, that’s great. You get a double check-mark,” Howell said. “If you write a letter that says you represent something, anything, your book club, you neighborhood association, the Howell Family Trust” then you are in another category.

Lori LeBlanc, who works for oil and gas groups in Louisiana, and who testified alongside Howell before a congressional committee last summer, is cited twice in the draft proposal’s comment section. “She’s the head of this and the head of that,” Howell said after the rally.

SODA doesn’t have a goal for its campaign, but it is trying to extend its reach beyond the coast to people across the state. “The comment letter is partially for BOEM to see the issues and for people to have their personal commitment become real to them,” Howell said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s three sentences or three paragraphs, it’s a personal commitment.”

She told the rally that people who have a story and a rationale to get attention. “If you write a letter that says, ‘hell, no, we don’t want any offshore oil and gas,’ they’ll put that in another pile. It’s like, ‘thank you for writing, but … ,” Howell said. “So you have to come up with something, any possible reason you have, any of the 15 things we’ve talked about.”

Along with submitting comments to BOEM, Howell urged people to send copies to their state and federal representatives. “Keep hammering our elected officials,” she said. “You can call Gov. McMaster now and thank him.” The governor wrote the secretary of the interior last month asking the state be removed from the leasing plan.

There is a greater awareness of the issue now than there was in 2015, members of SODA say. “People are engaged,” said Jim Mallow, who is a member of the group’s leadership team. He added after the rally that, “I heard a lot more enthusiasm.”

It was the first time Don and Nicole Barksdale had attended a SODA event. They moved to Ricefields in September. Nicole got a round of applause from the audience when she proposed recruiting homeowners associations to help generate comments. “It would be a great way to spread the word,” she said.

Before she left, four other Ricefield residents in the room offered to help.

Don said he was aware of the impact of oil on the west coast of Florida, but didn’t know about plans for South Carolina until recently. “We need to get involved,” Nicole said.

Along the way to the March 9 deadline for submitting comments, SODA also hopes to draw a crowd for a BOEM hearing on the proposal in Columbia on Feb. 13. It runs from 3 to 7 p.m. at the DoubleTree hotel. Opponents will hold a rally at the state Capitol at 11 a.m.

The Coastal Conservation League is also sponsoring a bus trip to Columbia for the hearing. It will leave Feb. 13 at 7 a.m. from Inlet Square Mall. The cost is $3. Registration is required at coastalconservationleague.org.

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