Mount Pleasant, South Carolina – On this dock, where captains and first mates are freshening their boats with coats of white paint and rigging up new shrimp trawling gear to take to springtime Atlantic waters, the debate over drilling for oil in East Coast waters divides colleagues and, occasionally, families.
Much of Capt. Wayne Magwood’s pro-offshore drilling stance comes down to a pocketbook issue. Burning through 1,000 gallons of diesel a week in his boat Winds of Fortune is manageable with low diesel costs, but past high fuel prices have made the economics of shrimping nearly impossible.
“I’m tired of paying $4 a gallon. I’d like to pay $2 a gallon,” the 64-year-old Magwood said. “We don’t want to be dependent on foreign oil. We can’t get it when we need it. I think it’s good for the local economy. Environmentalists are doing a good job of regulating it and they’ve done a good job in the Gulf.”
The good job he referred to is the cleanup following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one that sent nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the same spill activists against offshore drilling cite as one of many reasons to keep oil and gas interests out of the Atlantic.
The Gulf spill is illustrative of the entire debate over Atlantic energy exploration. Advocates say the economic benefits will be significant, both regionally in the jobs created and nationally in the increased oil and natural gas reserves that could drive down energy prices. Opponents say economic projections are unreliable and the potential positive impact is not worth the risk of a possible oil spill in the pristine Atlantic waters.
The East Coast holds no offshore drilling rigs, and as former President Barack Obama was preparing to leave office, he removed the Atlantic from the next five-year offshore energy plan, and banned drilling across wide swaths of the Atlantic from the Canadian border to Virginia. He also rejected six permit applications to conduct seismic testing off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, effectively ending attempts to search for oil and gas in those areas.
But as President Donald Trump, friendly to the fossil fuel industry, assumed office, offshore drilling opponents began steeling themselves for a challenge. That challenge began to materialize earlier this month amid published reports that Trump was preparing an executive order that would undo the Obama administration's actions restrict offshore exploration and drilling. As a candidate, Trump promised to expand exploration and drilling opportunities off the Atlantic coast.
The speculation has come as a disappointment to Cindy Tarvin, who along with her husband Taylor Tarvin, runs two shrimping boats from a dock shared with Magwood’s Winds of Fortune.
“The lessons from the Gulf are still fresh in a lot of people’s minds and I don’t think it’s going to be a great source of oil for this country or anywhere,” she said, drawing on concerns about the infrastructure and concerns that a spill would devastate the Carolina coasts. “To put oil rigs in fishing grounds is, in my opinion, a terrible idea.”
The Tarvins also sell wholesale and retail shrimp from their Mount Pleasant location, one that lies just north of Charleston, connected to the city by one of the region’s most distinctive features: the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, an expanse that carries motorists beneath soaring towers and elegant cables supporting eight lanes.
Many locals cross the bridge to head to work in Charleston and parts south; others driving north into Mount Pleasant are bound for Sullivan Island’s placid sands or docks like those on Shem Creek, where the Tarvins also sell shrimp to walk-up customers, along with supplying the crustaceans wholesale to area restaurants.
Here at the Shem Creek docks, along with experienced sea hands is a captain-in-training, 10-year-old Braxton Brown, who one day hopes to pilot his own boat, following in fishing waters trawled by both his dad and granddad.
He, too, has thoughts on offshore drilling.
“I don’t want it to happen because all the porpoises and dolphins will go deaf and won’t be able to find food or anything and they’ll die and they could get in the nets,” said the fourth-grader, who said he’s heard some talk around the docks and learned about seismic testing last year.
Critics of the tests, which use high-powered airguns aimed at the ocean floor to generate sound waves that help create a picture of the ocean's subfloor, fear they can harm or kill marine life, including deafening mammals and disrupting fish habitats.
But Braxton’s granddad, Donnie Brown, who pilots the Carolina Breeze for the Tarvins, sees new opportunity for his skills should the oil or gas rigs come.
The elder Brown began learning his trade as his grandson did, as a boy, and has lived through enough decades on the ocean to learn the kind of lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom. At times, high fuel prices have whittled away at decent living. He lost one boat to a fire when a cord shorted out, and the one he bought to replace it was a lemon.
He likes the peace of the big, open water, and once captained a tugboat pulling barges to the Bahamas, until his boss lost that contract and put him on the narrow waterway. Hated that, he said.
On offshore drilling, he makes no mention of whales or dolphins, while his grandson says nothing of the family’s income.
“They’ll have crew boats running back and forth and they’ll need captains for that, carrying supplies,” the grandfather said. “I got a friend running crew boats in the Gulf. There’s good money in that.”
But to many on South Carolina’s coast, good money isn’t about oil. It’s about a way of life, attractive to locals and visitors alike.
South Carolina draws tourists from across the Southeast, with 60 percent of the nearly 30 million visitors to the state traveling to a coastal county, according to estimates by the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. By one estimate, accepted by some opponents of offshore exploration, Atlantic coast economies support 1.4 million jobs and contribute $95 billion to the annual gross domestic product. Offshore exploration and drilling can't come close to that, they say.
The bulk of visitors South Carolina's coast head to Horry County, home of Myrtle Beach, to Charleston County with its rich cultural and historical offerings or Beaufort County, known for Hilton Head Island, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Folly Beach saw an uptick in visitors who abandoned Gulf Coast vacations in favor of South Carolina, said Mayor Tim Goodwin. Many still return to Folly, he said.
In 2015, as talk of offshore exploration and seismic testing in the Atlantic ramped up, Goodwin and the City Council passed a resolution opposing those practices, with municipalities along the Southeast coastline adopting similar measures. So far, 1,200 local governments have stated opposition to drilling off the Atlantic.
“It’s given us a lot of advertisement over the years and people still come back here after the Gulf was cleaned up. You look at timing, it’s everything,” Goodwin said. “They’re talking about exploring offshore and then they can’t show you it’s going to be of any great economic impact. Are you willing to take that chance with what is your state’s number one economic driver?” he said, noting that agricultural folks might also lay claim to the top spot.
“We don’t want our pristine beach to end up as an oil slick,” said the mayor, who likes to spend his free time searching for endangered turtle nests.
But it’s not just the image of a blackened beach brought by a major spill that worries anti-drilling advocates. They fear the smaller leaks that could send sticky blobs of oil, known as tar balls to the sand, each one nicking away at an economy with a pristine getaway and lifestyle at its center.
Advocates for drilling argue the coast stands to gain jobs, both directly in the petroleum industry and indirectly through supporting services. It’s a claim to the many who have protested offshore drilling.
But many, like Sandra Bundy are adamant that offshore drilling should not be allowed to impinge on the force now driving coastline’s economy: tourism. A native of Murrells Inlet and a real estate agent, Bundy in her 55 years has watched her hometown transform from a sleepy strip to a bustling destination.
Owner of real estate agency, B&P Inc., Bundy also is a member of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. Known as SODA, that loose coalition of activists and concerned citizens formed about three years ago as it seemed the area might be opened to the petroleum industry.
“If something were to happen to tourism, it’s going to affect our resort rental market. If somebody had a house on the ocean and we had a spill, they’d be losing money,” she said. “I believe we have such a strong real estate market here because it’s not industrialized. The industrialization has to be somewhere and where would that be?”
Bundy and other members of SODA insist any petroleum infrastructure, including buildings, pipelines and tractor-trailers, is not compatible with the area’s beaches, seafood restaurants and oceanfront homes, as well as refuges and preserves where salt marsh rivers flow placidly through cordgrass.
But the industry would focus on zoned industrialized areas, and wouldn’t barrel equipment though resort communities, said Andy Radford, senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.
Technologies exist that can forgo pipelines by placing oil in converted tankers and sending it directly to a refinery, he said. That part of the conversation would be far down the road, he added.
The last tests to probe for oil in the Atlantic used methods from 1970s and 1980s, he said, and the area should be tested with more up-to-date technology, particularly seismic testing.
“We don’t know what it’s going to be 10, 20 years down the road and that’s the time frame you’re looking at to develop frontier areas in the Atlantic,” Radford said. “If you have lease sales in the next five to 10 years, you’re looking at another five to 10 years before drilling occurs, discoveries are made, infrastructure is built. That oil is going to be produced well down the road. We’re looking at this as a long-term play.”
Down the pipeline
When it comes to energy independence, advocates both inside and outside South Carolina, believe the soundest long-term strategy lies with renewable energies, such as solar and wind power.
About a decade ago, under former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, Rob Young was appointed to a committee, along with other experts and elected officials, to examine the potential of offshore drilling along the coast.
The panel was disbanded before it produced a final report, but Young, director for the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said he didn’t see much of an upside for the state.
“It was pretty clear there weren’t going to be a lot of economic benefits for North Carolina, particularly for drilling done in federal waters. Just because there are some oil wells nearby, that doesn’t necessarily lower your energy costs, which are set by a global market,” he said. “There might be some areas that would benefit from providing services to those oil wells, but that’s likely to be areas that already have harbor facilities.”
Pursuing green technologies, he said, “seems like the final ticket for energy independence and national security in the U.S.”
Last year, when Obama’s draft plan removed much of the Atlantic from consideration for offshore drilling, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy considered that a victory that reflected the will of the people, said Chris Carnevale, the Charleston-based coastal climate and energy manager for the organization.
Should Trump sign an executive order to rescind that decision, it’s likely a court battle will play out, Carnevale said, though it is within the president’s purview to set the U.S. Department of the Interior on a course of his choosing.
But should that course materialize, it will almost certainly be followed by an outcry.
“We will know more in the weeks to come, I’m sure,” Carnevale said. “The important point is even though there is someone new in the White House, that does not change the fact that offshore drilling is hugely unpopular with coastal residents. It doesn’t change the fact that over 100 local governments up and down the East Coast have formally opposed offshore drilling or that over 1,000 businesses have formally weighed in with comments and letters to oppose offshore drilling along the coast.”
Back on the docks, shrimpers are more concerned with launching into the season when waters reach 70 degrees, but Taylor Tarvin has been disappointed to watch as environmental protections are being chipped away under President Trump, and doesn’t want to see offshore drilling in the area.
“It’s something you don’t hear about much anymore, but the fishing is still not up to the levels prior to the oil spill down there,” he said of the Gulf Coast.
Tarvin, 63, and his wife, Cindy, both voted for Hillary Clinton, while Wayne Magwood was a Trump backer. But they don’t argue politics or their differing opinions on drilling.
Beachgoers sometimes see shrimping boats along the coast, he said, but what many don’t know is the ocean hides rocky bottoms and sometimes, sunken ships, areas where nets can’t be lowered without damage, Tarvin said.
“If you have rigs being built out there that encroach on the bottom we can fish on, then that further reduces our ability to fish,” he said. “The impact could be as much as ‘we don’t catch as much as we used to’ to the closure of the fishing grounds, then the commercial fishing fleet on this creek is done. They’ll either be out of the business or they’ll have to relocate.”
The Tarvins are latecomers to fishing, in part wooed in by Magwood, who suggested their son had a knack for the water and was well-suited to pilot a boat.
As shrimping season neared, they and others on the dock helped rig up that boat with new “doors,” wood and metal weighing hundreds of pounds, and used to spread the net to gather shrimp.
The men, with their varying views on drilling and politics, hoisted the gear on a winch before setting it in place, as the boy, Braxton, looked on.
With perspiration dotting their foreheads and chests heaving from the effort, they did not talk about dolphins or tar balls or Trump or Obama among themselves.
The waters are near 70 degrees, and there are shrimp to catch.
Region's leaders split on offshore energy
Even amid a strong tide of opposition among coastal Carolinians, one of the strongest proponents of offshore energy exploration sees abundant economic opportunity for South Carolina and the region if President Donald Trump loosens restrictions on energy development off the Atlantic coast.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., is his state's most vocal proponent for offshore energy exploration.
"I am the only guy who is talking about it. The only guy who has studied it," Duncan said in a recent interview. "If you want to talk energy, you talk to me. It is something that I am passionate about."
Duncan and U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., are co-chairs of the Atlantic Offshore Energy Caucus. The other members of the five-person group are Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C.; Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.; and Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va.
But support among congressional delegations in the Carolinas is not unanimous, and the divisions don’t fall along party lines. Rep. Mark Sanford, a close ally of Duncan on many issues, has taken an opposing position on offshore energy. He and several other coastal leaders strongly objected this month to seismic testing and oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast in a letter to the Secretary of the Interior.
Oil and gas interests work hard to bring politicians on board, and that includes putting money into campaign coffers. One member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, Sen. Richard Burr, has accepted more than $838,000 in contributions from oil and gas interests and he has co-sponsored legislation regulating offshore energy in the past. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who supports offshore drilling, has accepted $517,000 in contributions from the industry, according to OpenSecrets.org. Sanford has accepted $26,900 from the industry, according to the website.
Others, such as Rep. Trey Gowdy who represents Greenville and the 4th District in South Carolina, are more circumspect on the issue.
“While offshore drilling generally has the potential to bring economic improvement, jobs and begin to remedy America’s dependence on foreign oil, it is critical and a condition precedent that we take the proper precautions to protect our environment," Gowdy said in an emailed statement. He puts that burden on the ones who do the drilling.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of offshore energy is the jobs it would create, and that’s what Duncan, who has accepted $153,900 from the industry while serving in Congress, trumpets loudly.
"What I do know about any sort of energy development offshore are the jobs that it creates onshore," Duncan said. "The offshore operations have to be serviced onshore. Those are the pipefitters and welders and food service and helicopter supply vessels, the activity in the port.
"Those guys are living in our communities and they're employed and they're buying vehicles and they're getting bodywork done and they're going to local restaurants — they're eating, they're tipping the waitresses." he said.
Proponents want to speed up search for energy
The search for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North and South Carolina could be months, rather than years, away.
That would put the first wells in the Atlantic in as little as three years, and major oil drilling infrastructure a decade or so off, under the most aggressive timelines. And some projections show by 2035 the oil industry could add $850 million a year to the state's budget.
There is broad consensus that President Donald Trump is preparing a plan to reverse actions by former President Barack Obama’s that effectively banned oil and gas exploration in the South Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, a region three to 200 miles off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
Trump's actions could hasten the approval process for six companies that sought permits to conduct seismic surveys in the region to give energy companies a better idea where oil or gas may be located. Obama denied all six of those permits two weeks before he left office, ending a years-long process.
Trade organizations representing oil and gas companies and the surveyors who map the ocean floor said they completed nearly every step of the rigorous process before Obama denied their applications, and they shouldn’t have to start over.
They were on the final step when the denials were handed out, said Gail Adams-Jackson, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the surveying companies’ trade group.
“There is no reason why companies should have to begin another extensive process when the denial of the applications were not based on any deficiencies in the application or the process,” Adams-Jackson said.
Environmental groups are concerned Trump might allow those companies to skip the line, said Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist with Oceana, the ocean-protection advocacy group that is opposed to offshore exploration or drilling.
With other pro-drilling decisions likely to come from the Trump administration, those on the South Carolina coast who experienced victory just months ago are now staring at another fight over the future of the coast.
It's not a fight Rick Baumann expected when, just over a year ago, he stood with neighbors, business owners and friends on a sun-draped South Carolina beach and sipped celebratory champagne from paper cups to toast Obama’s decision to leave the Atlantic out of the next five year offshore drilling plan.
Baumann hung a photo of the celebration on the wall of the store he founded, Murrells Inlet Seafood, and felt relief. Then Trump took office, and Baumann learned how fragile Obama's efforts to stave off oil and gas exploration along the coast could be.
What might be under the sea
No one is certain how much recoverable oil or gas is beneath the Atlantic. The most recent estimates by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management say there could be 4.6 billion barrels of oil in federal waters off the entire Atlantic coast. That’s one-fifth of what is estimated to be in the Gulf of Mexico and would be enough to supply all U.S. oil consumption for 234 days.
But it’s almost certainly a low estimate, oil proponents say.
The last time the Atlantic was surveyed more than 30 years ago. Those surveys were done using out-of-date imaging and before recent technological advances in oil and gas production were invented, said Andy Radford, senior policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry trade group. Energy hawks say they need to be able to survey using modern technologies that will give them a more accurate picture of what may be there and whether it’s commercially feasible to drill.
The Department of the Interior, which manages offshore leasing of the Outer Continental Shelf, is focused on increasing offshore revenue, said Heather Swift, an Interior Department spokeswoman. In 2008, the year before Obama took office, the United States brought in $18 billion in offshore revenues, Swift said. In fiscal year 2016, offshore revenues had fallen to $2.8 billion, she said.
"This administration prioritizes all-of-the-above energy and putting American energy first," she said.
The oil industry says if it's able to start exploring, estimates of oil and natural gas deposits will likely rise as companies discover more recoverable sources. A 2013 survey prepared for the industry shows that oil and gas could bring jobs and cash to the region.
The industry in South Carolina could add 11,000 oil and gas jobs by 2035 and indirect and induced employment could add another 24,000 jobs in careers such as retail, waste management, healthcare and food services as the industry brings people to the state, according to the API and National Ocean Industries Association report. That could add $2.7 billion in gross domestic product per year to South Carolina by 2035, the report states.
At first, Obama, with his “all of the above” energy platform, seemed to be on board. But after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the administration hit pause and never really hit play again.
Between March and May of 2014, six companies applied for permits through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to conduct seismic tests in the Atlantic, a process where boats drag nets with hundreds of sonic cannons across wide swaths of the ocean surface at a time. The applications drew fierce opposition from environmentalists and eventually from many of the seaside towns and businesses. When BOEM denied all six applications on Jan. 6, two weeks before Obama left office, it said the surveys were unneeded because the Atlantic wasn’t in the five-year lease plan.
None of those companies has withdrawn its request and each could appeal and ask for the permitting process to start where it left off.
In seismic surveying, airguns emit acoustic pulses from the surface into the seafloor over large areas and long periods of time. The pulses penetrate several thousand meters beneath the seafloor to create a map of crevices where oil or gas deposits may be located.
“Those are things we need to make an informed decision out there,” Radford said. “And in turn, that’s information our companies would need before they’d go in and buy leases in those areas.”
But those sonic blasts can damage the hearing of whales, turtles, fish and invertebrates, said Oceana’s Biedron.
“There are scientific peer-reviewed studies that show that seismic noise impacts marine life,” she said.
Oil and gas advocates like API say there is no scientific evidence seismic blasts harm marine life. That is technically true, Biedron said, because studies haven’t documented any significant population loss from the use of airguns.
“It’s technical, but in order to show that populations are impacted you have to show impacts of many, many animals,” she said. That’s practically impossible to document, because researchers would have to follow thousands of whales or fish for months at a time throughout the ocean to measure effects of the noise, she said.
But “research shows that catch rates of commercial fish decline when seismic testing is taking place,” while studies have shown drastic effects on individual fish, she said.
Aaron Rice, an expert on marine life and communication, and science director of the bioacoustics program at Cornell University, said seismic blasts have been shown to affect migratory patterns and can kill fish or mammals that swim too close to the blasts.
A single airgun generates a pulse at about 230 decibels about every 10 seconds, he said. Strings of airguns pulled by a boat can set off hundreds of pulses every few minutes as the vessels “mow the lawn” over an area of ocean, he said.
Even though the government regulates the duration of the impulses, scientists say the noise morphs into a constant rumbling in the water that can be detected up to 435 miles away, Rice said. For fish and whales that use their ears to navigate, find food and keep tabs on their young, the constant noise could be devastating, he said.
The industry takes precautions to protect marine life. For instance, vessels won’t turn on airguns if whales are spotted within 500 yards, and they have spotters on board to scan for marine life nearby.
“Industry will say that this is basically like a lightning strike. The sound of a lightning strike, because it’s such a short duration, isn’t going to kill you,” Rice said, “Our response is ‘yeah, well imagine living through a nine-month lightning storm.’”
An oil and gas future
If the Trump administration gives approval of seismic permits and reopens the Atlantic coast for leases, oil exploration could begin in 18 months and drilling for exploratory wells could conceivably start by 2020, Radford said.
A critical mass of oil and gas could bring more infrastructure – refinement facilities, pipelines and more — to industrial locations along the coast, he said. But that would depend on what's found off the coast and how costly it would be to retrieve, and it would at least a decade away.
“It’s not like the pipeline would be going through the middle of Hilton Head Island,” he said.
During the Obama administration, the industry had settled on a 50-mile buffer from the coast to begin exploration. That buffer is not set in stone though, Radford said. Federal waters go from three miles offshore to 200 miles out and it’s possible a five-year plan could include that entire area.
Beach goers standing on the sand can see about five miles out while someone standing on the balcony of the tallest hotels in Myrtle Beach would be able to make out the top of a platform about 20 miles offshore, Radford said.
Drilling opponents such as Frank Knapp take a long-term view, as do the oil interests. Knapp is the president, CEO and co-founder of both the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast (BAPAC) and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
He’s coordinating an effort along the entire Eastern Seaboard to show how many people oppose any exploration for oil and gas in the Atlantic. So far, more than 35,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families represented by BAPAC, along with 1,200 local governments, have stated opposition.
“The oil that is spilled or leaked knows no boundaries,” Knapp said. “Three miles or 50 miles or 100 miles, it knows no boundaries. It doesn’t belong on the East Coast. That is not our economy and it threatens our economy.”
Atlantic coast economies support 1.4 million jobs and contribute $95 billion to the annual gross domestic product, according to a study by Oceana using U.S. Census Bureau data. That study said tourism provides 78,180 jobs and $4.38 billion to South Carolina's gross domestic product while the fishing industry provides 1,049 jobs and $14.76 million.
The oil and gas industry has made great strides toward safety since Deepwater Horizon, developing better ways to cap leaks and putting in more protocols to prevent spills, Radford said.
“People can rest easy,” he said.
Knapp said those safety measures don’t account for human error, hurricanes or equipment failure. Through 2012, federal data show 20 percent of offshore spills resulted from human error, he said.
There’s little that states can do to oppose offshore exploration, because the decision ultimately rests at the federal level, he said. They can weigh in, but the president is not bound to listen, Radford said.
Right now, none of the states on the East Coast would receive revenue sharing for oil or gas production, Radford said, though it’s possible some states would agree to revenue sharing if the industry comes to their shores.
If South Carolina negotiated with the oil and gas industry for the federal/state revenue sharing models in place now for four Gulf Coast states, it would see a 37.5 percent share of bonuses, rents and royalties generated by leases and production, according to the 2013 API study. With ramped-up production by 2035, that could add another $850 million to the state budget.
Baumann, at Murrells Inlet Seafood, watched Trump’s victory speech in November and was hopeful when Trump declared he would be a president for “all the people.”
Now, in between ringing out customers buying just-caught shrimp and fresh offerings like sea bass, mahi-mahi and triggerfish, Baumann’s hope has turned to anger.
“We are dead-set against this and the president is not listening,” he said.
With oil talk, Gullah see assault on way of life
St. Helena Island, South Carolina – While he waits for an outdoor vendor to slide battered whiting fillets in hot peanut oil, Jaime Chaplin offers an abbreviated history lesson on coastal Carolina, one that reaches back four centuries.
“Not to say nothing crazy, but back in the day, the white folks drove the black folks to the outskirts, to the marsh, to the water where’s there’s nothing at,” Chaplin said. “At the end of the day, that’s the most valuable property now, waterfront property. All we had, we had to learn how to fish. They drove us out of the inland, to the water. So that’s how we learned how to survive, to the water. Hunting and fishing.”
Like many of the African Americans in the Lowcountry, 37-year-old Chaplin is Gullah, a people descended from slaves.
Early in their history, after being forced to the coast where no one else wanted to live, the Gullah carved out a seaside existence that's still dependent on sustenance fishing. When the oceanfront became the center of Lowcountry culture, the Gullah, who once owned Hilton Head Island, were forced to adapt. Now the coastline that has sustained them for generations is under multiple threats, they say, including the prospect of offshore oil and gas wells.
It is increasingly clear President Donald Trump intends to open the Atlantic Ocean to offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling, a proposition that had been largely taken off the table by President Barack Obama in his waning days in office.
Coastal communities and activists who oppose the idea of oil rigs off the East Coast celebrated Obama's actions, among them Marquetta Goodwine, cheiftess of the Gullah-Geechee Nation.
That the Atlantic might be reconsidered for drilling has Goodwine – known as Queen Quet, the latter pulled from her first name – preparing to again protest a move she sees as infringing on a centuries old way of life.
“The Gullah-Geechees are already dealing with sea level rise, ocean acidification,” she said. “We’re dealing with fishing brought in by commercial trawlers from other places disrupting and disturbing the waterways. We had no idea that in the oil drilling process, there’s the use of seismic guns."
In seismic testing, used to locate oilfields under the seabed, blasts of compressed air are directed at the ocean floor, with the returning information analyzed to determine what might lie beneath. Environmental groups say the sonic blasts have negative effects on marine life.
“If you harm the waterways here, then you harm our culture. Our cultural heritage cannot be sustained without the waterways being healed,” Goodwine said.
The Gullah-Geechee people lived on the coast in relative isolation. There, these descendants of slaves retained aspects of their African heritage and spoke a creole dialect known as Geechee, a name also used to identify their people living outside of South Carolina, from North Carolina stretching to Florida.
That coastal area, from north of Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, was in 2006 named the Gullah-Geechee National Corridor by an act of Congress. The designation not only speaks to the historical and cultural importance of the people, but also allows the federal government to provide assistance preserving historical sites and artifacts.
Goodwine is proud her people left the coastline alone, particularly the stretches of salt marshes critical as habitats and as a buffer that allowed an Atlantic riled in the hurricane season to flood the fields of cordgrass with little damage to inland areas.
But a changing modern lifestyle, with its development of beachfront property and fishing quests, have infringed on a Gullah way of life where childhood is synonymous with fishing.
At a Saturday outdoor market on the main stretch into St. Helena, Ricky Wright waited for his peanut oil to heat so he could sell fried whiting to customers.
Fishing has changed since his youth, said Wright, 61, who is vice president of the Gullah-Geechee Fishing Association.
The coast and the Gullah can’t afford a spill like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Wright said. As he puts it, "We feed the neighborhood. We don't do a lot of sport fishing."
As the peanut oil simmers, Wright’s customer, Chaplin, grew impatient, and with a laugh announced, “I like my fish with the head on. I like it looking right at me.”
Wright had no fish looking at Chaplin, who is proud his family owns Barefoot Farm, just down the way. Much of the coastal region was once owned by Gullah people, though land has changed hands as real estate in the area boomed.
That areas have been sold is a matter of personal economics, Chaplin said.
“You never know a person’s struggles,” Chaplin said. “You can’t say it’s sad when you need money for your family, when you sell out.”
Like Chaplin, Ed Atkins Jr., is opposed to oil exploration in the area. Atkins sells live shrimp for $4 a pound from a plywood-covered post called Atkins Live Bait that was started in 1957 by his father not far from the entrance to the island.
The 66-year-old was raised up fishing, and could show you where he snags fat bait shrimp at night, but you wouldn’t know how to catch them.
But with talk of seismic testing, he worries about far larger sea creatures.
“When is enough going to be enough? You’re messing up a lot of stuff like whales traveling through the area, dolphins, different mammals that travel with sonar,” he said. “They’re going to beach themselves somewhere.”
People on the island have families to feed, he said, and these days – from fishing licenses to the petroleum industry – most everything seems to be driven by the chase for a buck.
“What is the big greed about this oil thing? Just because someone want to make some money?” he asked. “When is it going to be enough of people trying to screw everything up for a dollar.”