S.C. offshore drilling debate continues with new emphasis on natural gas 

Drill, Baby, Still?

When lipsticked pitbulls and $4-a-gallon gasoline were front page news last summer, the pressure to implement new domestic oil drilling was a political rallying cry. The Bush administration lifted a long-standing federal moratorium on new offshore drilling, but the public's insistence on new oil rigs subsided with a swift drop in gas prices and the victory of "hope" in November.

In South Carolina, environmentalists were allayed by predictions the waters off the Palmetto State held little oil and the governor's suggestion that the spot with the most potential for drilling be ruled a national monument. But advocates of drilling are still spinning their bits.

click to enlarge Campbell
  • Campbell

South Carolina's Natural Gas Exploration Feasibility Study Committee held its first public meeting at Trident Technical College earlier this month. Chaired by state Sen. Paul Campbell (R–Berkeley County), the committee's business, government, and tourism representatives seemed open to exploring for oil and natural gas off the state's coast.

click to enlarge Davis
  • Davis

The committee will meet once more this spring before presenting recommendations to the legislature, but the Obama administration is forcing states to wait on taking action. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar postponed a federal plan for offshore drilling. On the last day of the Bush administration, the Department of the Interior proposed opening 300 million acres of seafloor to drilling, with the details ironed out by March 23. Salazar extended that deadline by six months.

Still, three bills in favor of offshore drilling have been introduced in the S.C. House and Senate this session. The most significant, S.293, places spill clean-up responsibility with the leasing company, but also expedites any new leases in S.C. territorial waters (about 3.5 miles from shore) through the DHEC permitting process.

Although Sen. Cambell supports the bill, the exploration committee chair acknowledges the effort is largely symbolic, due to a lack of geological evidence that oil or gas exists so close to our coast. The bill was heard in subcommittee last week and was held over until the exploration committee's report is completed.

Charleston Sen. Robert Ford, a Democrat, authored a similar bill expediting drilling permits (S.44), while House bill H.3194 attempts to define how the state spends drilling revenue — it's expected to receive up to 50 percent of drilling profits.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates that oil quantities off the South Atlantic region (S.C. to mid-Florida) are at 410 million barrels, or a 20-day supply at current levels of U.S. consumption. A January MMS report ranked the area 13 out of 16 regions examined off the U.S. coast for potential economic value, and listed it as the most environmentally sensitive of the potential drilling sites. Gov. Sanford proposed last year that the Blake Plateau, where much of the drilling would potentially take place, be declared a national monument for its vast canyons and coral reefs.

Sen. Campbell emphasizes that the bleak MMS estimates are based largely on tests done in the 1970s, and that new exploration is essential to making a decision. He also specifies that the committee he chairs deals only with natural gas, although gas and oil are typically found and permitted together. "I would hope if we find oil ... that we could do something with it," says Campbell.

The only voice opposing drilling on the exploratory committee is that of Hamilton Davis, a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League. He calls for a closer look at our "massive offshore wind potential," and says the current bills calling for expedited drilling permits are superfluous and would be a waste of an understaffed DHEC's time.

"These bills are a political move to give the pretense that they're actually doing something about energy in South Carolina," says Davis. "We've been preparing ourselves for something that just simply isn't going to happen. This is going to turn out to be a colossal waste of time and resources for the state."

Most likely, the exploratory committee will recommend that the state pursue offshore drilling. South Carolina will then have to wait on a federal decision next fall before taking any actual steps toward implementing exploration.

Sen. Campbell says that he supports an "all of the above" approach to energy production, and that despite the hang-ups, offshore drilling is worth the debate.

"I think we have to have our finger in all those pies to make sure we don't run out of energy here in this state," he says. "Would there be enough interest on the commercial side (for drilling)? If there's not, there's no harm in opening it up."

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