Atlanta Business Chronicle
January 19, 2018
By Dave Williams
Up and down the eastern seaboard, political leaders were quick to criticize the Trump administration this month when the Interior Department announced a plan to open nearly all U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling.
The response in Georgia, however, has been more muted. While expressing some concerns over the potential impacts of lifting a ban on drilling for oil and gas off the East Coast the Obama administration imposed in late 2016, Georgia business and political leaders see offshore drilling as at least worth a look.
“I want to see what’s out there,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, whose House district takes in the entire Georgia coast. “Having an all-of-the-above energy policy is extremely important for national security.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Jan. 4 a proposal to offer for sale the largest number oil and gas leases in U.S. history starting late next year. It would open up 90 percent of offshore areas for drilling as part of a five-year plan.
The announcement kicked off a review process that will include hearings in each coastal state. A hearing in Atlanta is set for Feb. 28.
The drilling plan touched off a wave of opposition from governors and members of Congress from coastal states worried about the potential impact on beach tourism and commercial fishing, while coastal cities and counties passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling.
“It speaks very loudly that every single coastal municipality in South Carolina — and over 140 municipalities along the East Coast — have formally opposed oil and gas development off the Atlantic coast,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. “I don’t think the arguments in favor of changing this policy are there, particularly when weighed against what most engineers suspect would be at most a four-month supply of oil reserves for our country.”
Georgia, too, has expressed concerns over the plan. In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) last August, while the proposal was being developed, Georgia Commissioner of Natural Resources Mark Williams brought up the potential effects of offshore drilling on tourism, recreational fishing and traffic to and from the Georgia ports, as well as the potential for harming underground water supplies.
After the proposal was announced, a spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal said he had concerns about drilling he planned to pass on to Georgia’s congressional delegation.
Carter is asking the BOEM to hold a hearing on the Georgia coast on the plan.
“I want to get the opportunity for [coastal] citizens to get their questions answered,” he said. “They’re the ones who are going to be most impacted by this.”
“If there is any discussion of new offshore drilling moving forward, it’s imperative that states and affected local areas be part of that conversation and decision-making,” added Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
Still, Georgia political and business leaders have not expressed outright opposition to offshore drilling, unlike their counterparts in other states along the Atlantic seaboard.
Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the difference in Georgia’s reaction likely lies in the nature of its coastline.
For one thing, it’s only a little more than 100 miles long. Also, much of the coastline is made up of environmentally sensitive salt marshes rather than long stretches of beach, not a tourist magnet along the lines of Myrtle Beach, S.C., or the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“When it comes down to the state’s priorities, this is just not at the top of the list,” Weaver said.
But the Trump administration’s decision Jan. 9 to exempt Florida from offshore drilling because of the potential impact on that state’s huge tourist industry may change the way other states are responding to the plan, said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina-based Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast.
“That was the watershed moment,” he said. “Other governors are saying, ‘What do you mean my state is not unique and tourism is not a big driver of our economy?’ … We’re not going to be treated like second-class citizens.”
Another likely bone of contention is a provision in the plan to do away with a 50-mile buffer zone between the coastline and drilling rigs.
“I don’t want to go to Tybee [Island] and see those rigs out there,” Carter said. “I don’t want to see those lights at night.”