By Bo Petersen
A little more than a month after seismic blast testing for oil and natural gas was stopped offshore of South Carolina, exploration companies are gearing up for a new try.
Conservation groups are gearing up to fight again. This time, the battle will focus on jobs and the economy, they say.
A dozen anti-drilling advocates met Tuesday in Charleston to discuss expanding the opposition. They may look inland for more support in the vein of the massive coastal protest that in 2016 helped derail plans for testing and drilling.
Frank Knapp, founder of the anti-drilling Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, said he has heard the exploration industry is planning to approach the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management about reversing a testing permit denial adopted during the last days of the Obama administration.
Asked about that, the pro-drilling exploration National Ocean Industries Association president Randall Luthi said, “Industry continues to have interest in updating grossly outdated offshore resource estimates so that future decisions are based on sound science rather than political hyperbole.”
In seismic testing, powerfully loud air guns are fired underwater every 16 seconds to read “echoes” from the bottom geology. Conservationists oppose them because of the potential to disorient and injure marine animals. Business groups have joined the conservationists out of concern for the industry’s impact on multi-million dollar coastal tourism revenue.
Luthi and other industry representatives say advances in drilling technology have made the operations safer, and that seismic surveys have taken place for a half-century with no direct evidence it harms sea animals, commercial fishing or tourism. They tout the economic benefit and potential job creation of the work.
Drill or don’t drill cuts to the heart of coastal life, where interests are divided between exploring for potential economic benefit or restricting exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy. Residents widely oppose both testing and drilling as a quality-of-life issue.
The conservation groups that met Tuesday came from Florida to New Jersey, and included local groups such as Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. They reflected an opposition that grew to include thousands of residents and nine of every 10 coastal municipalities in those states — 23 in South Carolina alone.
Knapp’s group represents more than 35,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families from Maine to Florida.
Former Gov. Nikki Haley was part of a coalition of governors who worked largely behind the scenes with industry lobbyists to urge federal officials to open the Southeast coast to oil and gas exploration. Gov. Henry McMaster has said he opposes it. State governors are given a say in BOEM decision-making.
The battle could be the first of any number the conservation groups expect as administration and congressional efforts are made to rescind laws and restrictions set by the Obama administration — battles they expect will come down to legal challenges.
The groups “are more fired up than they were a year ago,” said Samantha Siegel of Oceana.
“I think the business voice becomes even more important” in the current political environment in Washington, D.C., said Knapp, who did not take part in the Tuesday meeting but said the effort is valuable. “This is not something that you can say, ‘We’ll fight them next time.’ There will be no ‘next time.’ ”