Offshore drilling: Testimony draws House panel in different directions
By Charles Swenson
For some it’s personal. For others it’s political. For members of the S.C. House committee on offshore drilling it’s about distilling hours of conflicting testimony into a report to Speaker Jay Lucas. But even that is a source of disagreement.
Rep. Russell Ott of St. Matthews said at the conclusion of the ad hoc committee’s final hearing this week it needs to “lead on this issue” rather than summarize the findings. “This can’t be the end,” he said.
The committee heard this week from officials from coastal communities, all of which have adopted resolutions opposing federal proposals to open the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas exploration and drilling. “I don’t always find myself on the side of the environmentalists,” Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said. “That’s how important this issue is to me.”
“Our economy’s thriving and we don’t have to have offshore drilling,” he told the committee. “I don’t see that it’s viable for us or the state.”
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and Georgetown County Council Member John Thomas delivered the same message: “We don’t want to be a Port Fourchon, Louisiana,” referring to the Gulf Coast oil hub.
Rich Bolen of Vets4Energy told the committee during public comment that Charleston would be the ideal oil port and should have a refinery.
Ellen Weaver, president of the Palmetto Promise Institute, a policy group founded by former U.S. Sen Jim DeMint, told the committee in public comment that the opposition to drilling “is not a campaign that’s organic to South Carolina.” They are funded by “far-left environmental extremists,” she said.
That drew a rebuke from Rep. Lee Hewitt of Murrells Inlet. Pointing out that every local government on the coast opposes drilling, he asked Weaver, “Did you just say that they were uneducated?”
Weaver explained that the resolutions are similar and that Oceana, an international conservation group that is aiding local opposition, “is supported by far-left donors.”
State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch of Murrells Inlet testified that he has been “demonized” for supporting exploration off the coast. “That doesn’t mean drilling offshore,” he said.
He asked the committee to focus its attention on testing. “It’s foolish not to know what’s off our coast,” Goldfinch said. “We are the only people who have not done that. In fact, there is a giant hole off South Carolina” in terms of geological data.
Not only would the seismic tests that determine the likely location of oil and gas deposits help shape the debate over drilling, they would provide information about fault lines and potential earthquake hazards. “We may have a time bomb sitting right off our coast,” Goldfinch said.
Ott said the testing can’t be separated from the drilling because the federal permits and leases are intertwined. He told Goldfinch he is willing to concede there is oil and gas off the state’s coast and shift the debate to whether the state should support drilling and its infrastructure.
Goldfinch wasn’t willing to make that assumption about the resources. “None of us can tell that,” he said, without tests.
But Ott noted that the test data is not public information. U.S. Rep Jeff Duncan has a bill in Congress that would require the federal government to share oil revenue with the states and make testing data available to the states, Goldfinch said. He suggested that the committee urge the full legislature to support that.
Peg Howell, a leader of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic who testified before the committee last month, told members during the public comment period this week that the Duncan bill doesn’t include a provision for data sharing.
Rep. David Hiott of Pickens said he spoke with Duncan the day before the hearing. “He said it’s in there,” Hiott said. “That was his No. 1 issue.” Howell gave committee members copies of the bill.
Howell, who is married to John Thomas, also conceded that there is oil and gas off the coast, but said an updated report by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management shows there is “significantly less” in this region than those to the north. The closest likely drilling site is off Cape Hatteras, she told the committee. That’s too far from South Carolina for the state to benefit from royalties under the proposed revenue sharing legislation, Howell said.
Rep. Bill Chumley of Woodruff said if other states allow drilling, South Carolina will still face the risk of spills but get none of the benefits from royalties or jobs. “There isn’t going to be any positive impact,” Howell countered. “You guys really need to understand this bill.”
If there isn’t enough oil and gas off South Carolina to attract companies, why not let them spend their money on testing, Hiott asked. The committee heard from Goldfinch and James Knapp, a geophyisicist at the University of South Carolina, that claims the airguns used in seismic testing harm marine life are overblown. Testing has gone on for 80 years, Knapp said, “if it was wiping out the base of the food chain, I think we would have heard about it.” “There is yet to be any conclusive evidence that there is any long-term harm,” he added.
Howell disagreed. She told Hiott she favors having more data, “data that doesn’t cause harm in the collection of it.”
That’s a personal decision, Hiott said. No, Howell said, “it’s a scientific decision.” And she told the committee, “that’s the nature of science. It’s OK to disagree.”
Hewitt said afterward that the hearings were educational. “I learned a lot. They cut through the fringe on either side,” he said.
He opposes offshore drilling, but he is the only member of the committee from the coast. Lawmakers from the Upstate are attracted by the promise of money from drilling, which he noted will only come with a change in federal law.
The committee is not scheduled to meet again. Rep. Bill Hixon of North Augusta, who chairs the committee, said he will prepare a report for the speaker. No vote is scheduled, but Hewitt said he expects that members will have an opportunity to review the report.
There are also resolutions pending in the House for and against offshore drilling. Ott said he plans to introduce another in opposition.
“This is not the direction we need to take,” he said.