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ITK: Offshore Drilling

Is it right for Beaufort County?

Story by Lisa Allen

This isn’t the first time Beaufort County has had to weigh the pros and cons of industry in its midst. From the 1900s’ logging and phosphate mining (yes) to more recent chemical processing and industrialized food processing (no), local residents and elected officials have had to balance our natural beauty and its related tourism industry against better-paying manufacturing jobs that could infringe upon — and perhaps decimate — the former.

The latest offshore debate began in 2015 when oil and gas exploration companies sought permits under President Obama as the administration worked on a five-year federal offshore oil and gas leasing program to run from 2017-2022. The administration decided to continue a moratorium on drilling in the Atlantic that began in 1982.

Energy industry officials argue that there could be a lot more oil off the coast than outdated testing methods were able to detect. Current estimates are there is anywhere from 1.3 billion to 5.58 billion barrels of oil and gas resources beneath the U.S. Atlantic outer continental shelf, just a fraction of what’s in the Gulf of Mexico. (South Carolina’s contribution would meet only six days of U.S. demand.) Seismic equipment could uncover huge oil reservoirs hidden beneath salt deposits in the depths of the Atlantic, industry proponents argue.

President Trump, who supports domestic oil and coal production, ordered the Department of Interior to draft a new five-year plan to begin in 2019, superseding the current plan. He also ordered the department to expedite pending permit requests.

Wildlife experts say seismic testing, which involves air guns that blast extremely loud sounds down to the seabed to plot the size and location of hydrocarbon deposits, will injure or kill scores of sea creatures including whales, dolphins and sea turtles that depend on sonar inputs to find food. Especially at risk is the critically endangered right whale.

A Southern right whale mother with her calf.

Environmental groups from Oceana to SC Coastal Conservation League, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), sued to stop any testing, followed quickly by the City of Beaufort, Hilton Head, Port Royal and Bluffton and 12 other coastal communities.

“I have not worked on another issue during my 12 years at SELC with such solid opposition in a state,” said attorney Catherine Wannamaker. “The SC coast is too special of a place to open to drilling and seismic testing and virtually everyone here recognizes that.”

Attorney Amy Armstrong, executive director of South Carolina Environmental Law Project, which is representing the shoreline cities, said research into the issue convinced her that mankind’s very existence depends on a healthy ocean.

“I was struck by the reality that marine species depend on sound for every activity essential to their survival: Foraging, mating, navigating, avoiding predators and communicating. That is their primary sense. You can’t see in the ocean’s depths. Disrupting that sense — hearing — harms everything in the ocean, not just mammals, but everything down to zooplankton. It’s the basis of the food chain. Life — our life on dry land — depends on a healthy, hearing ocean.”

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson was the first Republican on the East Coast to join the since-consolidated lawsuits. Now more than 60 communities and governors from every East Coast state except Connecticut have publicly opposed seismic testing and drilling.

“We didn’t say we were going to be an industrial state,” Wilson said. “We said we’re going to be a tourism state … and we decided that years ago.”

Wilson’s brief minced no words in regard to the administration’s action. “Here, the two orders in question, that of the President and the Secretary, had no such “reasoned,” readily identifiable basis, other than the desire by the President and Secretary to engage in full scale leasing and immediate seismic testing, based upon political philosophy. …. To allow a new administration to come in and essentially “tear up” a previous leasing plan is to invite chaos.”

SC Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican who supports President Trump on most issues, said “South Carolinians can remain confident that we will continue our efforts to protect our pristine coastline and invaluable tourism industry from the destructive threats of seismic testing and offshore drilling.”

In Congress, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, who represents Charleston to Hilton Head, spearheaded a successful strategy to choke off any federal funding to consider permits in this year’s budget. He also cosponsored the bipartisan Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act, which would permanently ban testing of drilling off either coast. It was passed by the Natural Resources Committee.

There is some support in the state for testing for oil off our coast, but that support comes from the Upstate, hundreds of miles away from the ocean.

The only person to testify in support of drilling when it was debated at the SC Statehouse was the American Petroleum Institute. Its South Carolina lobbyist argued that the United States will need more oil and gas in the future, and a proposed ban against drilling infrastructure could have unintended consequences for the state. LL

Not Beaufort County’s first environmental rodeo

In 1969, BASF proposed a $100 million 1,800-acre petrochemical plant on Victoria Bluff, with docks on the Colleton River

Beaufort County has long recognized that industry is necessary for a healthy American economy, but just not here.

The template to fight — and continue to fight — industrial intrusion goes back 50 years. It was 1969 that BASF, a German chemical company, proposed a $100 million petrochemical plant on Victoria Bluff near Bluffton. The company envisioned a 1,800-acre industrial complex with an investment as high as $400 million, at the time the biggest manufacturing project dangled before the state of South Carolina.

State politicians and many local residents were ecstatic at the nearly instantaneous solution to the area’s crippling poverty. The state of South Carolina promised BASF it would build docks on the Colleton River, a 13.5-mile railroad spur to the site, and a road from Beaufort to Bluffton over Callawassie Island. It would allow BASF to suck up to 100 million gallons of water per day, and taxpayers would subsidize the cost of treating up to 2.5 million gallons of effluent pouring into the non-flushing Colleton River.

Locally, the opposition was visceral. Many residents had pinned the future of their home to visionary Charles Fraser, who painted an economy premised on tourists flocking to the area to simply be and enjoy the beauty all around us. They would fish, crab, sail, dine on succulent shrimp and laze on the beach. Thus, futures painted by BASF and Fraser’s Sea Pines were in direct opposition. While the debate raged, Arnold Palmer had just won the inaugural Heritage golf tournament, making Sea Pines Resort a national media darling.

At the same time, environmental concerns were emerging. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” came out in 1969, outlining the risk we posed to our environment. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. The Environmental Protection Act was gaining support in Washington and would be signed into law the following year by Republican President Nixon.

Residents rallied around Fraser’s vision and organized an opposition that culminated in a shrimp boat steaming north to Washington, D.C., to show the federal government an industry that couldn’t be relocated to make way for an international corporation that didn’t care much about local natural resources, other than abundant water and access to water transportation. BASF defended a few lawsuits opposing the development until it caved to the pressure and abandoned its plans in early 1971.

Today, Victoria Bluff is a central part of Colleton River Plantation and the Waddell Mariculture Center. LL

Read Attorney General Alan Wilson’s smackdown of the moratorium reversal here.