August 17, 2017
By Rob Hotakainen and Kellie Lunney
When Peg Howell and her husband decided to semiretire eight years ago, they moved to Pawleys Island, S.C., a seaside resort she calls “a piece of heaven on earth.”
The last thing she wants to put up with is exploration work and drilling rigs.
“It could happen very quickly,” argued Howell, who founded a group called Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic.
To make sure it doesn’t, Howell and other opponents are mobilizing to block President Trump in his bid to allow oil and natural gas exploration and drilling off the Atlantic seashore.
And even in one of the country’s reddest states, where Trump won easily in 2016, opponents are increasingly confident they can succeed.
“The odds are getting better every day — the momentum is on our side,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of both the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce in Columbia and the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, a group backed by 41,000 businesses from Maine to Florida.
Today marks a key day for opponents, the deadline for the public to make comments about the forthcoming five-year plan to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Trump ignited the debate April 28, when he signed an executive order that reversed an Obama administration ban on drilling in much of the Arctic Ocean and directed the Interior Department to consider allowing more offshore oil and gas leasing in parts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico (Greenwire, April 28).
Knapp said the president’s plan has been met with a “unified wall of resistance” from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“The entire coast is opposing it — all the residents, the business community, all the local governments. … It has been amazing to see the bipartisan opposition that’s rising up,” he said.
To be sure, the plan has drawn some support. When Trump signed his order, South Carolina Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan in a Facebook post called it “a common-sense step” and pledged to “stand firmly behind President Trump as he makes American great again.”
“It provides clarity for an industry that has been attacked by radical leftists for years,” Duncan said. “They have no idea how their policies threaten the security of the United States, and I am proud that we finally have someone in the White House with clear eyes and steely resolve.”
But so far, 129 East Coast municipalities — including every coastal mayor in South Carolina — have gone on record opposing the president’s plan.
And opponents say the state’s top politicians have taken notice.
That includes Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, a drilling opponent who last year as lieutenant governor became the first statewide officeholder to endorse Trump. McMaster’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, was an enthusiastic backer of drilling.
“We are very optimistic,” Howell said. “It’s not just people complaining: All these people vote, and these politicians understand that we’re not going to be voting for people who support offshore drilling.”
For opponents, there’s more good news on Capitol Hill, where the state’s two GOP senators, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, have done little to try to sell Trump’s plan.
The situation is similar in North Carolina, where Trump’s plan has sparked “something magical” inside the opposition, said Randy Sturgill, Oceana’s senior campaign organizer for the Southeast and a native North Carolinian.
“It was like, the people got up off their couches,” he said. “The people who were silent for four years all of a sudden saw an imminent danger and have jumped into this battle.”
State officials take sides
One reason for what Sturgill calls his “warm feeling” is the backing of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who came out strongly against offshore drilling last month.
“It’s clear that opening North Carolina’s coast to oil and gas exploration and drilling would bring unacceptable risks to our economy, our environment and our coastal communities — and for little potential gain,” Cooper said during an event in Atlantic Beach, N.C.
But North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R), the chairman of the North Carolina Energy Policy Council, submitted formal comments saying Trump’s plan “could bring economic benefits and thousands of jobs to our state as well as our nation’s economy.”
Views on East Coast drilling, however, do not cleave to conventional party politics.
For instance, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is the only Democrat who sits on the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, a group whose mission is to “influence a sensible path forward for the development of America’s offshore energy resources.” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, is also part of the coalition, which includes four other Republican governors.
McAuliffe has been on the pro-drilling side in recent years, but he sent an Aug. 11 letter to BOEM asking that Virginia “not be included in the 2019-2024 National OCS program.”
One potential sweetener for elected officials is the prospect of revenue-sharing for their states. Alaska and four Gulf of Mexico states have such arrangements with the federal government, which gives them a cut of the revenues generated by offshore oil and gas production.
McAuliffe in his letter to BOEM said that “a primary concern that must be satisfied in order for Virginia to be included in the leasing area is a revenue-sharing agreement between participating Atlantic coast states and the federal government. Today, we are no closer to resolving this issue than when I became governor.”
It’s unclear whether the Trump administration would favor that arrangement. The White House’s 2018 budget proposal called for the repeal of state payments to Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas under the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which allows those states to share 37.5 percent of oil and gas revenues produced in federal waters off their coasts.
Drilling backers say that the Obama administration made 94 percent of the outer continental shelf off-limits to development and that more is needed to help a key job-producing industry.
Seeking to build support for the plan, the American Petroleum Institute last year surveyed 664 North Carolina registered voters and found that 67 percent backed “increased production of domestic oil and natural gas resources located here in the U.S.,” while 64 percent supported “offshore drilling.” But respondents to the survey were not asked whether they backed the plans specifically off the coast of North Carolina or in the Atlantic.
A GOP congressional divide
Last month, North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis were among 36 Republicans who sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a letter voicing support for Trump’s plan.
But neither of South Carolina’s senators signed the letter.
“Look, they can see the handwriting on the wall with opposition from their constituents,” Knapp said. “Why would they go out on a limb and do that? That doesn’t mean they’re opposing it — it means that they’re shifted into a neutral position, but, hey look, that’s an achievement. … Turn the clock back 12 months and they would have signed it in a heartbeat.”
In the last session of Congress, Scott promoted legislation to allow more drilling, calling it a good way to create more jobs and expand the economy.
But his spokeswoman said Scott is no longer trying to advance the idea.
“Sen. Scott is still a supporter of offshore drilling; however, he has delayed pushing his legislation in support of it because he believes it is necessary to garner support of more coastal residents,” said Michele Perez-Exner, Scott’s press secretary. “He grew up on the coast and has a firsthand appreciation for the need to preserve our beaches and environment to ensure we continue to safeguard our thriving tourism industry.”
Graham backs drilling but wants to give the final say to states, allowing them to decide whether to opt in.
House Republicans in the two states are split, as well.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), co-chairman of the Atlantic Offshore Energy Caucus, and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) back the plan.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) criticized it, saying it could hurt the state’s tourism industry and was “at odds with the overwhelming chorus of voices at home speaking out against offshore drilling.” He introduced a bill in April to suspend drilling and related activities off the East Coast for the next 10 years.
And Sturgill praised Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) as a “champion” against drilling from the beginning.
“He was a champion before it was popular to be a champion,” he said.
‘Battle for the Atlantic’
Sturgill said Trump won’t be able to ignore the “cries” of opponents who “just want to be left alone,” but he’s taking nothing for granted.
“We’re having to go forward full bore on this — we’ve got to continue with our battle for the Atlantic,” Sturgill said. “The industry is hellbent on punching holes out here in the Atlantic.”
Sturgill said he’s feeling better than he did three months ago about defeating the plan: “I feel optimistic.”
As today’s deadline neared, Howell of Pawleys Island has stepped up the pace, speaking at four public events in just the last couple of weeks, meeting with at least a thousand residents from North Myrtle Beach to Charleston and urging them to send their comments to BOEM.
Last month, she got to make her case before a House Natural Resources panel, telling lawmakers that the risks of drilling are simply too high for animals and the environment (E&E Daily, July 13).
Howell said she’s out to do “a tremendous amount of education” to thwart the president’s plan before it’s too late.
“This could be done to us and without our say,” she said.