Drilling off Southeast coast abandoned
The groundswell of residents who opposed opening the Lowcountry’s offshore waters to drilling for oil and natural gas had help from an unlikely white knight: the Navy.
Federal regulators Tuesday removed the Southeast coast from a proposed final ruling on leasing new areas for the work.
The ruling did open more of the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean. It now goes to a 90-day public comment period and must be approved by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
The decision does not end the leasing process for seismic testing and exploratory drilling, but profit for that work is in fees paid by oil industry companies for the results, and the lease applications are widely expected to be dropped.
Regulators have delayed issuing the leases, based partly on the same concerns that helped decide the removal.
Nikki Martin, president of the exploration industry’s International Association of Geophysical Contractors, called the removal another missed opportunity to make informed decisions about the nation’s resources.
The leasing period extends five years. The action could be overturned by Congress or a future administration but would require a years-long public process. The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people appear to largely support curbing exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy. Industry spokesmen argued that the work could be conducted without impacting the economy and while ensuring the safety of marine animals.
More than 100 coastal governments came out against it, along with hundreds of businesses and business groups. Resident opposition coalesced to eventually number in the tens of thousands in South Carolina alone. It included ad hoc groups, such as the Sullivan’s Island-based Don’t Drill Lowcountry.
“We are extremely grateful for all the people who made phone calls, signed letters and took a stand. I think all that really made a difference,” organizer Sarah Church said Tuesday.
The decision was cheered by environmental groups, such as Oceana and the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose representatives called it historic. It was denounced by industry representatives, who called it shortsighted and mind-boggling.
Jewell said it was made “after robust public input” that included more than 1 million comments, most expressing concerns, and input from more than 60 groups. But she added that concerns for commercial fishing and national defense, as well as public opposition and market conditions drove it.
Earlier this month, Abigail Hopper, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management director, said at a congressional hearing that the Department of Defense “uses some of those areas a good deal and has significant concerns” with the proposed oil and natural gas work.
“The DOD use is critically important,” she said.
That would be the Navy, which has its largest naval station in Norfolk, Va., and an array of stations along the Southeast coast. The service conducts, sea and air warfare training, as well as sonar training in the waters, which have routinely drawn concern if not opposition from environmental groups worried about the impact on marine life.
Even the environmentalists saluted the Navy’s role.
“This decision reflects a host of reasons not to open the Atlantic to drilling, including the intense opposition from local communities, concerns from the Department of Defense about how drilling would impact military activities, and a different economic and energy outlook,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“We appreciate that the administration took the time to hear from all sides of this issue and make the right decision,” she said.
Industry spokespeople denounced it.
“The use of our nation’s military in justifying this decision is a red herring. Military and oil and natural gas activities have co-existed for years in the Gulf of Mexico. By removing the Atlantic sale (leases), we are saying the military and industry can’t figure out a way to make it work. That doesn’t even come close to passing the red-face test,” said Randall Lothi, National Ocean Industries Association president.
A coalition of governors, including Gov. Nikki Haley, worked largely behind the scenes with industry lobbyists to urge federal officials in the Obama administration to open the Southeast coast to oil and natural gas testing and drilling. In 2015, the Department of Interior included the region in its proposed areas for five-year leases.
She maintained adamant support even as opposition grew.
“No one ever wanted to do anything to harm our coastline,” she said Tuesday. “Tourism is too huge to South Carolina to take that chance. But at least explore what the possibilities are. And what happened was D.C. just shut us down from being able to have those possibilities. It’s one more time they said they were going to do something and didn’t follow through with it.”
The Southeast coast is considered marginal at best for the fossil fuel reserves, but the industry pushed hard for the leases. The effort led to concerns among opponents that leases were sought in order to build shore infrastructure to export land-mined fracking oil and gas to Europe, or to gain a foothold for potential future mining of methane hydrate, a combustible gas that is thought to be relatively abundant.
Industry spokespeople appeared to be girding for the decision at a press conference they called Monday. They made a last appeal for the Obama administration to open the Atlantic waters, but in response to a question said their interest in the waters was to augment operations in the Gulf, in case a hurricane or similar problem shut down those wells.
“It opens up some new opportunities,” Lothi said, adding as an afterthought, “provided we find anything out there.”
Meanwhile, a group of mayors, including Charleston’s John Tecklenburg, met with White House and congressional officials Monday to push to reject the leases.
Most political figures in South Carolina had supported exploring for potential economic benefits, even though the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management concluded that the work “may result in low immediate economic benefits for nearby communities.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who with state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, was among the first state or federal legislators to actively oppose the testing, cited both the public’s and officials’ roles in turning the decision.
“This is fantastic news for the coast of South Carolina. It’s a decision that speaks volumes to the importance of voicing one’s opinion and local input in the political process,” Sanford said.
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