Trump's Offshore Drilling Plan Runs Into Bipartisan Resistance in South Carolina

The S.C. Senate took a major step Wednesday in the fight against oil drilling along the S.C. coast, agreeing overwhelmingly to block the petroleum industry from establishing refineries, pipes and other infrastructure needed to support drilling.

By Sammy Fretwell

The S.C. Senate took a major step Wednesday in the fight against oil drilling along the S.C. coast, agreeing overwhelmingly to block the petroleum industry from establishing refineries, pipes and other infrastructure needed to support drilling.

Wednesday night's 40-4 vote ends months of inaction in the Legislature over the increasingly unpopular plan by President Donald Trump to allow seismic testing and drilling along the South Atlantic coast. The Senate's approval of a budget proviso, which supporters hope would stop drilling, now moves to the S.C. House for concurrence.

Drilling opponents in the Senate said the proviso, offered by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, only makes sense in a state where tourism is king. The state's more than $20 billion tourism economy could be threatened by oil spills and the industrial complex needed to support drilling, they said.

"Once we open this door, we could all be impacted with significant economic damages to our coast," Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston said, noting how the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill hurt the Gulf coast economy.

The vote followed a news conference Wednesday morning in which Campsen, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson, Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler of Lexington, and others spoke against drilling. Campsen said during the news conference that he would offer the budget proviso.

The question of whether to oppose or support oil drilling had been mired in the Legislature. A House subcommittee sidestepped the issue last week, voting for both a pro drilling bill and an anti drilling bill. Otherwise, there had been no action in the Legislature.

Campsen's budget proviso was an attempt to jumpstart efforts to keep oil rigs and an industrial complex away from the S..C. coast, which features major resorts such as Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, and historic waterfront cities like Charleston and Beaufort. Those communities attract millions of visitors each year from across the country.

Oil drilling backers say fears about pollution and industrialization hurting tourism are overblown. They have said the industry can be developed without much impact on the environment, arguing that oil-drilling could bring hundreds of thousands of jobs to a state that needs to diversify its economy. They also say that while the nation has plenty of oil now, it may need reserves from the Atlantic Ocean if the oil can be located and extracted.

Trump's push to allow drilling reverses a decision by former President Barack Obama not to allow drilling off the Atlantic coast. Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, the South Atlantic coast has never had oil drilling. Local governments in South Carolina and other Atlantic states have come out strongly against drilling.

Environmentalists were ecstatic after the Senate's action Wednesday.

"State lawmakers should immediately seek every opportunity to protect South Carolinians and our vibrant environment and economy from dangerous offshore drilling and seismic testing," Coastal Conservation League Director Laura Cantral said in a statement Wednesday night. "This proviso would effectively block expansive industrialization of our entire coastline -- something that is incompatible with the fragile beauty of South Carolina's shore and our quality of life."

Senators said the budget proviso would allow no funds to be authorized for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control or local governments to approve plans supporting offshore drilling for oil or gas. It prohibits the permitting of onshore infrastructure related to offshore drilling, Senate Republicans said.

The four senators who voted against Campsen's budget proviso were Danny Verdin, R-Laurens; Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg; Wes Climer, R-York; and Tom Corbin, R-Greenville.

Frank Knapp, who heads the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, also applauded the decision late Wednesday, saying opposition to oil-drilling is bi-partisan.. The small business chamber has been outspoken in its opposition to offshore drilling.

"The bi-partisan South Carolina voice of opposition to exploring and drilling for oil off our coast is now a scream," Knapp said in an emailed statement. "Our deeply red state is turning purple, not in partisan terms, but in our anger at the Trump Administration trying to force destruction to our beautiful ocean, marine life and local economies from seismic blasting our ocean and turning our pristine beaches into sludge from the inevitable oil leaks and spills from drilling."

(c)2019 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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