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Charleston Business

Government leaders and activists say offshore drilling would threaten the state's economy

Mar 18, 2019 10:46AM
By Dan McCue

When it comes to offshore drilling, Peggy Howell really has seen it all before. 

The first woman to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in petroleum engineering from Marietta College in Ohio, she later went on become the first woman ever to supervise a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

So novel was her ascension that the industry didn’t even have a name for it. In the lingo of oil and gas exploration, she was the “company man,” regardless of her gender.

But after working for ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, and Chevron, and then going on to earn a Harvard MBA, Howell began a second career as a management consultant and the fossil fuel industry was largely behind her. 

That is, until 2015, when the Obama administration revealed separate but parallel plans to allow seismic testing and the sale of exploration leases off the Carolina coast. Now a resident of Pawleys Island, a community she’s described as “heaven on earth,” Howell saw the proposal and all that would come with it in terms of mainland infrastructure, as a threat not just to the coast, but to the entire state.

As founder and chief spokesperson for the grassroots Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, and together with other concerned citizens, business owners, and government officials, she helped beat back both plans.

But within weeks of taking office, President Donald Trump announced an even more ambitious plan to open nearly all coastal waters to offshore drilling and exploration, rolling back the ban set down in the waning days of the Obama White House.

“I was shocked and dismayed,” Howell says. “Not only that he would encourage drilling off of our coast in the Mid-and South Atlantic, but that he thought it was a good idea to open up nearly 98 percent of the U.S. coastline and we were going to need to fight this battle all over again.”

The oil and gas exploration plan inspired widespread consternation in the days and weeks after it was announced. Local lawmakers from Myrtle Beach to Beaufort and even from inland communities like Greenville and Columbia panned the proposal, saying it poses too profound a threat to the state’s $20 billion tourism industry.

Even Gov. Henry McMaster, a staunch long-time supporter of the president, spoke out against the plan, telling then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a January letter that “every city and town council along the South Carolina coastline has voted to oppose seismic testing and drilling, and I agree with them.”

The governor went on remind Zinke that South Carolina regularly faces the threat of hurricanes. “We cannot countenance the addition of even more risk by placing offshore drilling platforms in the path of these storms,” he said.

The fractious debate took a turn in late November, when the Trump administration went ahead and authorized the seismic air gun survey of the bottom of offshore waters, giving five companies the right to conduct the tests in a stretch of ocean extending from Delaware to Florida.

That move inspired nine environmental groups and 16 coastal community in South Carolina to sue the administration in a pair of federal lawsuits filed in Charleston.

The plaintiffs contend the authorizations allow for nearly 850 combined days of around-the-clock activity, amounting to more than five million total seismic airgun blasts. And that, they say, will harass and kill several marine species, including critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Nearly all of the plaintiffs have said they are equally concerned the pipelines, oil and gas processing facilities, and refineries that would come along with the offshore rigs would destroy tourism and coastal investment in homes and recreation by effectively industrializing coastal areas.

“Given how soundly opposed this proposed activity is, there’s no valid reason to subject the ocean environment and the state economy to such harm,” said Mike Mather, a senior spokesman with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“One of the things many people may not realize is that even if you don’t run a business or live directly on the coast, you still benefit from the tax revenues coastal tourism generates,” Howell said. “That tax revenue pays for roads and a whole host of the municipal services we rely on every day. If that tax revenue disappears, those benefits will as well.”

She worries that while coastal states will bear the environmental and other costs associated with drilling, the income generated by the activity will be going elsewhere. After all, the Trump administration has said it will not share oil-leasing revenues with states, and there is currently no provision or law in place that would provide revenue sharing to South Carolina.

Of course, as in anything with politics attached to it, not everyone agrees.

James McCormick, program director of Vets4Energy, one of several groups who support stepped up oil and gas exploration off the U.S. coast, describes the Trump proposal as “a critical step” toward fully developing the nation’s energy resources and “securing careers for our citizens, including thousands of our veterans.”

He also takes exception with the idea that once drilling starts, catastrophic spills like the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which dumped 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, are all but inevitable.

“For anyone to say American workers can’t do it safely does a great disservice to our professional workforce of skilled labor and professional engineers,” McCormick said. “People from all over the world come to America for an education in petroleum engineering.” 

But Howell, the industry veteran, takes issue with the notion that offshore oil and gas exploration will be a local job generator on par with the arrival of Boeing and Volvo and Mercedes Benz in the Lowcountry.

“The reality is, high-paying offshore jobs require extensive training and oil field experience,” she said. “At  the same time, oil field workers are like nomads, who travel from their homes elsewhere in the U.S. or the world to a drilling rig where they work and live for two or three weeks and then return to their homes on their time off.  

“What that means is that offshore drilling jobs will not be local,” Howell continued. “And while some onshore support jobs may be created, they will be few in number, low-paying, and high risk or temporary.”

Despite the intensity of feeling on both sides, the process the Trump administration has begun is a long, long way from fruition.

To date, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has only issued a draft proposal for opening the outer continental shelf for oil and gas leasing, exploration, and development. That’s the second step in an 11-step pre-lease sale process.

And until the administration authorized the seismic testing, nothing else had happened, according to Alan Hancock, energy and climate advocacy director for the Coastal Conservation League.

“The planning stages take a long, long time,” Hancock explained. “Right now we’re waiting on the next iteration of a process—this would be the proposed program and a draft environmental impact statement—that’s going to spread across several years. And each step of the process has its own public comment period requirements.”

Catherine Wannamaker, a Charleston-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said given other priorities in Washington, the next step in the process is likely just getting started.

“What that means is that right now we’re in public outreach mode, working with local organizations, and continuing to act with partners in unified opposition to this plan,” she said.

As it stands today, Howell maintains her fight against offshore drilling, hosting events and educating the public and elected officials. 

Howell says. “The one thing I’ve learned through all this is that in a democracy, the most important words are ‘your constituents,’ and we plan to keep saying them on the state and federal level.”