State House could wade into offshore drilling debate soon 

"(It's) something that is going to take up a lot of time."

The S.C. House of Representatives appears ready to weigh in on banning offshore drilling.

Two competing bills — one that would kill the industry before it could begin, and the other that would prohibit local governments from banning it — have been placed on the contested calendar for second reading. Debate could happen as early as next week. But depending on House temperaments, it could be a while, too.

In the first three days of session, the anti-offshore drilling bill, H. 3087 championed by House Judiciary Chair Peter McCoy (R-Charleston) gained 28 additional co-sponsors. The bipartisan bill already had 41 co-sponsors by the tail end of the first year of the two-year 2019-2020 session. That means 70 members — more than 56 percent of the House — are now sponsoring the bill.

Lancaster Democratic Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell said she has been behind the early push to add sponsors.

"I probably have 10 more people who want to co-sponsor it who haven't gotten onto the sheet," she said Thursday. "Everyone seems to be on the same page."

In May, the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee voted to put the bill and its competitor, H. 3471, to the floor of the House.

Agriculture Committee Chair David Hiott (R-Pickens) was one of the House members that voted for debate on Wednesday.

"As we gathered the information and started talking about it (in committee), it was thought best we brought them both out of committee and got them on the calendar and let everybody have their say," Hiott said. "Let's just have the debate."

But being on the contested calendar doesn't necessarily mean House members will begin debating the bills next week or in the coming weeks. They could vote to table the debate, or recommit the bills into committee.

Hiott told Statehouse Report, City Paper's sister publication, he would be surprised if the House debated the bills before a decision was made on the future of Santee Cooper or the budget was hashed out.

"I don't think there's an urgency about it anymore," he said, citing how the Trump administration has backed off of offshore drilling in the Atlantic and the 2019-2020 budget proviso that prohibits issuing permits for the industry. "(It's) something that is going to take up a lot of time."

Aiken Republican Rep. Bill Hixon, a co-sponsor of the pro-offshore drilling bill, said he also doesn't see the bills going anywhere this session.

But Pickens Republican Rep. Gary Clary, an early co-sponsor of the anti-offshore drilling bill, said he expects movement on the floor.

"We'll be doing something," he said. "I anticipate it will pass because there's a real swell of support."

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia said a delay in the Department of Administration's report on bids for public utility Santee Cooper could open the door for House members willing to wade into this debate.

"We have got to make it clear that offshore drilling is not welcome off the shore of South Carolina," he said. "Hopefully that will not be something we have a problem with."

Gov. Henry McMaster has repeatedly voiced opposition to offshore drilling in South Carolina waters. It's anticipated that he would sign any bill that would prohibit the industry — as he did with the budget proviso last year.

"The governor will do everything in his power to make sure there is no seismic or offshore drilling," McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.

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