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Lowcountry divided on Obama offshore drilling plan

With President Barack Obama’s announcement Tuesday allowing oil drilling off the eastern seaboard from Virginia to Georgia, Lowcountry leaders and activists on opposite sides of the question are digging in their heels.

Land off South Carolina’s coasts would be available for oil and gas leases for the first time under the five-year plan, which would begin in 2017.

The issue has been pushed to the forefront locally by Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who has spoken against the practice and is concerned it could damage the environment and tourism. Two weeks ago, he spoke at a rally with representatives from the Coastal Conservation League, Conservation Voters of SC and the nonprofit group Oceana, which released a report opposing drilling in favor of wind farms as a potential economic booster.

“The president will do what the president will do, but I’m the mayor of Beaufort and I think this could put the coast at risk and it isn’t worth the risk,” he said of Tuesday’s proposal.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has not taken a stance on offshore drilling, though spokesperson Charlie Clark said Tuesday’s announcement would likely spark discussion at an upcoming government affairs committee meeting.

“We will continue to monitor the issue at the federal, state and local level,” Clark said.

While drilling would likely not begin for more than a decade, seismic testing — in which air guns are used to create sound pulses to search for oil deposits — could start as early as this year. The U.S. Bureau of Offshore Energy Management is expected to open a swath of the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to central Florida for such testing.

Nine companies have filed geophysical and geological permits with the BOEM to test Atlantic waters.

Some in the oil industry said the plan didn’t go far enough.

Related: Offshore drilling possible for Virginia?

Erik Milito, upstream and industry operations director for American Petroleum Institute, said in a prepared statement the federal government should have opened up all areas where significant energy discoveries were possible.

Local environmental experts, however, disagree about whether that includes South Carolina.

James Knapp, an earth and ocean sciences professor at the University of South Carolina, said it’s not clear how much oil may be found off the state’s coast, though past estimates seem conservative. He said it’s important to survey the state’s waters before ruling them out.

Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League, said the focus should be on wind power rather than oil. Wind is more sustainable for South Carolina and less likely to harm the environment, he said.

The proposal review process will include multiple revisions and public review opportunities and he encouraged South Carolinians voice concerns.

“We”re a long way away from this being final. These public comment periods are there for a reason,” Davis said. “… I think what the feds are going to hear is that to the people of South Carolina, this doesn’t make sense.”

Mitchell Colgan, geology and environmental geosciences department chair at the College of Charleston, said there’s no need to drill.

“We have no infrastructure here,” Colgan added. “It would have to be a huge field, especially now with the cost of oil being what it is, to make it marketable.”

While surveying technology has improved, he said, it will mainly improve drilling at existing fields, not help discover new ones. There’s little chance of finding any oil in South Carolina’s waters, or drawing the interest of a major American oil company, Colgan said.

“To me, it still looks like a political game being played here,” Colgan said. “It’s not a game dealing with science.”

Colgan also noted the risks of seismic testing on marine life, one of the major concerns of local drilling opponents.

One Beaufort business owner, Megan Feight, has gathered more than 2,460 signatures since September on a Change.org petition that argues testing and offshore drilling could irreparably harm aquatic animals and the waters surrounding the Lowcountry.

Kay Clamp, executive director of the state’s Petroleum Council, said she’s not concerned drilling will have negative effects or that tests will reveal barren fields.

“I think there are people who don’t want to believe that there’s something out there,” she said.

Clamp and Beaufort Tea Party leader Ann Ubelis said they are pleased by the proposal. They argue drilling would create jobs without marring the state’s landscape. No rigs would be visible from shore, they said, since drilling will take place at least 50 miles out.

Ubelis added that oil rigs should increase biodiversity and local fishing. And though gas prices have dipped well under $2 this winter, she said, there is still a pressing need to relieve the state’s reliance on foreign oil.

“It’s not about oil at the gas pump,” Ubelis said. “(Local) offshore drilling would reduce the cost of every single object we use, even the plastic wrapping on the meat and fish that you purchase.”

“I’m all for it,” she added. “Let’s go out, let’s explore, let’s see what’s out there.”


This article was written by Rebecca Lurye and Erin Moody from The Island Packet Online and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.