COLUMBIA — Offshore drilling, an issue that has created some bipartisan unity in South Carolina among opponents who argue such expansion would mar the state's pristine coastline, is surfacing in a political action committee's effort to oust U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
As the state's beaches teem with visitors on Labor Day, Lindsey Must Go PAC is flying a plane up and down the South Carolina coast, with a trailing banner reading "L. Graham Will Drill 4 Oil Here."
Officials with the PAC say the plane expenditure and an accompanying digital ad decrying Graham's support for drilling expansion legislation and alleged ties to the oil industry, are part of a six-figure buy over the next two weeks, now that the campaign has entered its final two months and voters are starting to tune in.
"Graham has been all over the map on drilling. His position shifts as quickly as the tide shifts," Jimmy Williams, a consultant who works with the PAC, told The Associated Press. "Jaime Harrison has had one position on drilling: Hell no."
Harrison is the Democratic opponent for Graham's seat.
"This false attack is an attempt to distract the people of South Carolina from Jaime Harrison's record as a high-paid, liberal lobbyist for BP, the company responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history," said Graham campaign spokesman T.W. Arrighi. "Harrison's environmental record can be summed up in two words — dirty and oily."
Harrison, an associate chairman with the Democratic National Committee, lobbied for BP in 2010 while employed by the Podesta Group, according to filings with the Center for Responsive Politics.
The political action committee ad derides Graham for his support of 2012 legislation that would have created coastal zones which, with legislative and gubernatorial approval, would be available for drilling leases. That measure died in committee.
The debate over drilling and its possible effects on coastal tourism, the crown jewel of South Carolina's multibillion-dollar tourism industry, has intensified since since 2017, when President Donald Trump's administration announced a five-year plan to open 90% of the nation's offshore reserves to private development.
At the time, there was bipartisan — but not unanimous — opposition to drilling expansion among South Carolina's U.S. House members, with some supporters saying the effort could mean an economic boon for an area increasingly reliant on tourism. State lawmakers have passed several measures to hinder any drilling expansion in South Carolina.
Graham said "there are ways to drill offshore that would not hurt tourism," saying several times since he felt states should be able to opt out or in before any drilling occurred off their coastlines. Fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has in the past voiced support for offshore energy exploration but also said officials should get buy-in from more coastal residents before moving forward, and that he would oppose efforts if his constituents did so.
The drilling debate played a key role in freshman U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham's 2018 victory in South Carolina's 1st District, where he became the first Democrat to flip a South Carolina seat from red to blue in decades. His GOP opponent, former state Rep. Katie Arrington, said during her contentious primary she supported Trump's proposal. Even after Arrington tried to modify her stance in the general election, saying she had sought an exemption from the president for South Carolina, Cunningham seized on her earlier statement, and defeated her by a slim margin.
Efforts on the drilling issue continue. Environmental groups have long challenged the permits for the testing that comes as a precursor to drilling itself, claiming the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in issuing the permits.
In the U.S. House, Cunningham proposed and successfully passed a ban on drilling and seismic testing, although the effort did not pass the U.S. Senate. South Carolina is seeking to block the federal government's actions in court.
Federal pursuit of drilling tests has continued apace. Albeit an incremental step in the process, the National Atmospheric Oceanic earlier this summer issued a ruling to allow applications for testing along the South Carolina coast, over some bipartisan objections from the state.