Sanford joins foes of offshore drilling

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford uses Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant as a backdrop for a news conference announcing his opposition to offshore oil and natural gas exploration and drilling.

MOUNT PLEASANT — U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford switched positions Monday to oppose offshore oil and natural gas exploration and drilling.

It was a question of finding a balance, he said. Sanford had supported the exploration to find out what resources might be out there.

He made the announcement under the marsh-side palmetto trees at Shem Creek Park, after telling The Post and Courier three weeks ago that he was rethinking his support.

Sanford acknowledged he was influenced partly by a groundswell of local anti-drilling voices.

More than 50 coastal municipalities and organizations have opposed exploration and drilling, including 13 in South Carolina.

The announcement caused a stir among advocates on both sides of the contentious issue.

But it remains to be seen what impact it could have on state and federal regulators deciding on permits. Gov. Nikki Haley, as well as the majority of state and congressional lawmakers, have publicly supported the testing.

The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people and interests are divided between potential economic benefits or restricting exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy.

His announcement should matter, based on a history of Congress listening to states on the issue, said Josh Eagle, University of South Carolina environmental law professor. “We can look at the precedent (of it), and we’ll see,” he said.

“The public is being heard. Right now the grass-roots movement on the East Coast is really heating up,” said Samantha Siegel of the environmental advocate Oceana.

Sanford “has heard from constituents who have questions about the potential resources that may be available off the coast of South Carolina. We would point out that many people and organizations in his district and throughout South Carolina who already are considering the benefits that reliable sources of energy can bring to the state support seismic surveys,” said Ken Wells, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors.

“We will continue to work with the South Carolina delegation, engaging in thoughtful conversation with them and their constituents to ensure fact-based discussion,” said Nicolette Nye, Ocean Industries Association communications vice president. “It is premature to prohibit the reopening of the Atlantic to oil and natural gas without first having a better idea of the extent of resources available for development.”

Sanford was joined Monday by a dozen local officials and state Sen. Chip Campsen, who also oppose the exploration and drilling. Sanford’s decision came down to one of the tenets of his politics, he said. “There’s something we have here (in the Lowcountry) that’s unique and ought to be preserved.”

The state won’t have a final say and the public won’t learn what, if anything, the proprietary seismic surveys find and won’t be able to weigh the pros and cons, he said.

Campsen stressed his concern over the massive shoreside industrial infrastructure drilling would need. Local officials who spoke called on everyone involved to “take a moment, take a breath” and re-evaluate those pros and cons.

Sanford has gone back and forth on his position on offshore drilling, but said he has been re-evaluating as he learns more.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has received at least 10 permit applications to explore offshore in the region. BOEM last year gave preliminary approval to granting permits, setting off rounds of public hearings and reviews.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is now reviewing permit applications from three companies. The permits could be derailed if DHEC finds the work disrupts the coastal environment or economy.

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