The Trump administration's proposal to expand offshore drilling is "horrible public policy," a Republican lawmaker from coastal South Carolina says.
State Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort County told The Associated Press that he worries exploratory efforts including seismic testing could harm marine life, as well as the state's $20 billion tourism industry, much of which is based in and around the lush coastline.
The third-term senator who served a delegate for Donald Trump at last year's GOP convention also said infrastructure needed for offshore exploratory efforts, including refineries and construction yards, "is dirty and highly industrial."
"This is simply not compatible with coastal South Carolina," Davis said.
The proposal unveiled by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would vastly expand offshore drilling and open up federal waters off the California coast for the first time in more than three decades.
The new five-year drilling plan also could open new areas of oil and gas exploration off the East Coast from Georgia to Maine, where drilling has been blocked for decades. Many lawmakers in those states support offshore drilling, although the Democratic governors of North Carolina and Virginia oppose drilling off their state coasts.
Drilling-related issues have always garnered lots of attention of South Carolina, a deeply conservative state with nearly 190 miles of ocean coastline, and where some groups and local governments have passed their own resolutions opposing drilling.
Eddy Moore of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League said a spill like 2010's Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf would "devastate" the state's rich beaches, rivers and salt marshes.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, one of Trump's earliest and most ardent supporters, has been cool to drilling and seismic testing, telling an economic development group he had "serious deep concerns." In April, when the Trump administration announced it would revisit plans for more offshore exploration, McMaster said he wanted to protect natural resources and had questions about the proposals.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, who is challenging McMaster for this year's GOP nomination, said, "We need to explore what we have off the coast" but cautioned against taking reckless action.
The state's congressional delegation has had mixed feelings on drilling. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's only congressional Democrat, said Thursday on Twitter that he had always opposed drilling and urged Congress to "act quickly" to block the expansion.
But even South Carolina's congressional Republicans have been split on offshore drilling. Rep. Mark Sanford, the state's former two-term governor, called it a "big win" for coastal communities in January 2017 when the Obama administration blocked seismic surveys in the Atlantic.
Months earlier, when federal officials barred oil drilling off the Atlantic Coast, Rep. Tom Rice — whose district includes Myrtle Beach, the heart of South Carolina's $19 billion tourism industry — said that, given discoveries of more onshore oil using technologies like hydraulic fracturing, "tapping new reserves in the Atlantic has become less and less feasible." On Thursday, Rice reiterated his previous opposition to drilling off South Carolina's coast.
In a statement to AP, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy called it "critical" to take precautions to protect the environment
In a release, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan called the plan "tremendous news for American energy independence, economic development, and job creation."
In a statement to the AP, Republican Sen. Tim Scott's office said he supports offshore energy exploration, but also believes officials should get buy-in from more coastal residents before moving forward.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said after Trump's executive order that "there are ways to drill offshore that would not hurt tourism," didn't immediately comment Thursday.
Ralph Norman and Joe Wilson didn't immediately return messages seeking comment.
The announcement by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke launched the process to open 90 percent of offshore waters in the continental United States. Only some waters off Alaska are excluded.
The change comes a little more than a year after the Obama administration had closed Atlantic waters offshore after a massive outcry from coastal residents and businesses. Conservation groups already have been re-rallying that opposition.
The leasing would be from 2019-2024. The proposal now goes to a review, including public hearings.
"This is going to be the future of our country," Zinke said, adding that revenue from the off-coast work could be re-invested in public lands. "This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed."
The move is almost certain to face legal challenges.
"Offshore drilling threatens local communities, economies, and everything that makes the South a special place," said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
"In 2016, Southern communities along the Atlantic coast successfully fought off an attempt to bring offshore drilling to their coasts, and they will do the same again,” Weaver said.
Obama closed off much of the Atlantic to drilling and did not approve leasing off the Southeast during the 2017-2022 period. In April, Trump ordered a review of those decisions.
The re-opening follows the administration's call for easing restrictions on oil rig operations and streamlining the reviews that protect marine animals during the leasing process. The lengthy process can seriously delay and restrict the work, and conservation groups used those delays as a tool to help derail leasing under Obama.
The re-opening also comes after a 2017 study that seismic blast testing for the oil and natural gas — the first step to drilling — harms not only wildlife but also elemental food source species such as zooplankton.
On the East Coast alone, opposition to the drilling and testing — which rose largely from protests in South Carolina — has grown to millions of East Coast residents, more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 41,000 businesses and a half-million fishing families.
For many, the fight over drilling cuts to the heart of coastal life, where interests are divided between exploring for the potential economic benefit of fossil fuels, to restricting exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy.
S.C. House members formed a subcommittee last spring — the Off-shore Drilling Ad Hoc Committee — to look at the pros and cons of leases for offshore testing and drilling. The subcommittee will report back to the Legislature.
Previous lease decisions have hinged partly on support of the onshore state government.
The committee has wrapped up hearings, and its report is expected to be submitted later this month.
Meanwhile, the stakes might soon climb in South Carolina. Zinke noted the country would soon be a major exporter of liquid natural gas.
A natural gas pipeline pumping 1.5 billion cubic feet per day is in the works to run from from West Virginia to the North Carolina-South Carolina border near Interstate 95. It's among a web of other gas pipeline expansions plotted through or near the Palmetto State.
Conservationists fear the new push to open the Atlantic offshore of South Carolina to oil and natural gas exploration and drilling has less to do with what could be found, and more to do with getting the onshore industry in place to export from those pipelines to Europe.
After decades of running natural gas out of the Gulf of Mexico to feed the country, fuel companies are now running natural gas and crude oil fracked from shale supplies in the Midwest and Northeast. The surplus is getting exported out of the Gulf of Mexico.
Those companies are looking to export to Europe from Atlantic ports such as Charleston. And that means money for local and state governments.
The move could be especially controversial on the Pacific coast where the decision would open federal waters off the coast of California for the first time in more than three decades.