Savannah Morning News
February 2, 2018
By Mary Landers
Savannah area lawmakers are leading bipartisan efforts in the state legislature to oppose offshore drilling in Georgia.
State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, is sponsoring the resolution he expects to file Monday in the Senate with Republican co-sponsors. It rejects both offshore drilling and the seismic testing needed for oil exploration off the Georgia coast.
“We can’t jeopardize our beaches, our tourism, and more importantly we can’t jeopardize our environment,” Jackson said.
State Reps. Carl Wayne Gilliard, D- Garden City, and Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, co-sponsored a House resolution also expected to be filed Monday. Also signed on are Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon; Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island; and Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville.
The decision to sign an anti-drilling resolution was a clear one for Stephens.
“I don’t think we need to do it,” said Stephens, who lives on the marsh in Georgetown. “Call Louisiana and ask those guys what it’s done to the shoreline not to mention the fisheries and tourism.”
Unlike bills, the passage of which result in changes to existing statutory law, resolutions usually express legislative opinion or recognition on some matter and do not have the effect of law.
Last month the Trump Administration announced plans to consider almost all of the U.S. coast, more than 90 percent of the offshore continental shelf, for exploration and drilling. The current plan, by comparison, puts only 6 percent on the table. Gone also is the 50-mile buffer previously included in the Obama administration’s five-year plan. The new draft plan from BOEM proposes three lease sales in the South Atlantic planning area that includes Georgia. There have been no sales in the Atlantic since 1983 and there are no existing leases.
Hitchens, who’s proud of the state’s pro-business stance, nevertheless sees the need for moving cautiously where the environment, especially the coastal one, is concerned.
“Our coast is only 100 miles long but it has a large percentage of the (East Coast’s) marshland where marine life is densely populated and which serves as nurseries for small fish, shrimp and even birds,” he said.
State Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, intends to sign when the resolution is finalized.
“You have to realize that tourism and fisheries are so important to the coast,” he said. “Secondarily, from the reports we’ve had there’s not much oil offshore anyway.”
Megan Desrosiers, executive director of advocacy group One Hundred Miles, praised the legislation.
“Offshore drilling has been a major concern for our citizens for several years. The move to open Georgia’s coast will threaten our thriving and growing tourism economy and damage our fisheries,” she said. “Our legislators are demonstrating that they are hearing citizens’ concerns, and that this is not a partisan issue. The resolution is all about Georgia – raising up our coastal economies and combating threats to our economies.”
Every environmental advocacy organization on the coast — including Riverkeepers, the Center for a Sustainable Coast and the Georgia Conservancy — opposes offshore drilling, as does a coalition of coastal businesses. Local governments including Tybee Island and Savannah have passed resolutions opposing drilling and the seismic testing required to explore for oil and gas.
At the state and federal level, however, legislators have previously been silent or on the fence about offshore drilling for Georgia.
Soon after Florida Gov. Rick Scott requested and seemed to receive an exemption from drilling for his state based on its reliance on coastal tourism.
U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke scheduled meetings Friday and Saturday with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to discuss their opposition to offshore drilling expansion.
Like Florida, Georgia released a tourism report that showed just how lucrative coastal tourism is here.
“The economic impact of tourism along Georgia’s coast was estimated at almost $2.4 billion in 2016,” said Spokeswoman Emily Murray of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Direct domestic and international traveler spending in Georgia generated almost 21,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs along the coast.”
Gov. Nathan Deal has since allowed that he has “concerns.”
“Gov. Deal has some concerns about opening up Georgia’s pristine coastlines and will communicate those concerns to the state’s Congressional delegation,” Press Secretary John Vaughan said last week.
Deal is the only Atlantic coast governor who has not made an official statement about the lease sales, Desrosiers said.
“He has, justifiably, expressed concerns about the impact offshore energy development will have on our tourism industry. So we are hopeful he will join his constituents and fellow East Coast governors to oppose opening up our coast,” she said.
South Carolina has an anti-offshore drilling resolution pending. Florida passed its resolution years ago.
“If it’s bad for Florida surely it’s bad for Georgia, along with our fish and shrimp industry,” Jackson said.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents every coastal Georgia county, has long repeated his general support of offshore drilling as part of an “all of the above” energy strategy. He’s been unwilling to ask for an exclusion for offshore Georgia, going only so far as to request an additional public meeting about drilling to be held on the coast. He made the same request under the Obama Administration when Georgia was initially included in the administration’s five-year oil and gas leasing proposal.
His request for an additional meeting has not yet been granted. The only meeting scheduled for Georgia will take place in Atlanta from 3-7 p.m. at the Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Airport Hotel, One Hartsfield Centre Parkway. See https://www.boem.gov/National-Program-Participate/ for more information.