Don’t Drill meeting overflows

Celebrated street artist Shepard Fairey designed a postcard handed out by Don’t Drill Lowcountry for people to petition Gov. Nikki Haley to exclude South Carolina from offshore drilling leases.

MOUNT PLEASANT — A capacity turnout of more than 200 people packed a meeting hall for the inaugural Don’t Drill Lowcountry gathering Tuesday night. Dozens more waited outside.

“We had to turn people away,” organizer Sydney Cook said.

This is the fourth “spinoff” along the coast of Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic, a Pawleys Island-based group. Each of them has started the same way, said activist JeanMarie Neal, with overflow crowds.

The grass-roots organization represents people who say they are frustrated that more isn’t being done to stop proposed oil and gas exploration offshore — despite solid opposition from coastal community governments, conservation and business organizations.

These aren’t your standard conservation advocates and don’t have standard memberships. Their participants include a former oil-rig crew chief and a former U.S. Department of the Interior staffer who worked with offshore oil and natural gas operations. They include teachers, Realtors, business owners, engineers, attorneys and a former congressional staffer. They number in the thousands.

What they want is for Gov. Nikki Haley to listen, to do an about-face from her current position and request that South Carolina be excluded from the leasing area. The idea is to use word-of-mouth influence, getting people as individuals to petition her.

“If the governor says no, we are out. That’s why the focus is on Governor Haley,” Cook said.

Their work is cut out for them. 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 January, the Interior Department included the region in its proposed areas for five-year leases that would open the waters to exploration with repeated blasts of seismic guns 50 miles or more offshore. Meanwhile, a bill now in the U.S. Senate would give states the option to open up their own waters to testing closer to shore.

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 spokespeople have argued that the work can be conducted while ensuring the safety of marine animals.

Since January, more than 40 community governments in the Carolinas have come out against the proposed drilling, along with hundreds of businesses and business groups.

Haley hasn’t budged. Asked again Tuesday if the growing opposition has her reconsidering, Haley — who is in Europe on an economic development trip — released a statement through staff.

“Governor Haley appreciates the concerns of those activists — offshore exploration should be done in a way that protects, and never compromises, our environment, our ports and tourism industry,” the release said.

“But as she has worked with members of the congressional delegation and the General Assembly on this critical economic development issue, she’s also been clear: exploring offshore for energy is critical to our future because it means jobs, energy independence from other countries and security for our state.”

State Sen. Chip Campsen, who spoke at the meeting at Charleston Harbor Resort, opposes the leases because he believes the onshore infrastructure demand to drill for oil or natural gas offshore would be too much for the coast to handle while protecting its tourism economy. If approval of the leases were pressed to vote in the state Legislature, it would be close, he said.

“It’s pretty powerful that so many coastal communities have weighed in on the issue,” Campsen said. But “to be honest, I think the Legislature has somewhat ignored it, because (the state) doesn’t have any jurisdiction in the matter.”

The Don’t Drill Lowcountry campaign was launched by five Sullivan’s Island residents, Sarah Church, Rita Langley, Cecile Fletcher, Alice Morrisey and Cook. They aren’t strangers to politics. Two of them are Town Council members. But this sort of campaign is bigger than any of them has tried before.

Yet they had 1,400 follows on social media within four days of launching a Facebook page with no promotion, Cook said.

“It has very quickly escalated as we’ve gotten the word out. People are coming out in great strength,” Church said.

“The problem is not getting supporters. It’s that there aren’t enough of us to handle them,” Cook said. “Not a single person or group approached has said no.” The Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic group has more than 1,500 “core” participants, Neal said. Each person contacted is asked to spread the word. The startling thing for organizers of each group has been just how many people weren’t aware of plans to open the offshore areas.

“The sense is people are desperate for information. They don’t know what they can do to help. They feel powerless. It’s almost a vacuum,” Cook said. That’s what they want to change.

“It’s phenomenal,” said James Mulhern of Mount Pleasant about the turnout at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s hard to work as an individual, so it’s good to see the community coming together.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.