Seaside towns to battle oil permits

A seismic survey ship in operation offshore the mid-Atlantic states.

A groundswell of Lowcountry coastal towns and cities is gathering to oppose exploring for natural gas or oil offshore, as environmental groups push communities before public meetings on the issue in March and April.

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

The rally is being stirred partly by the communities’ own concerns and partly by the environmental groups, trying to counter a perception that the state largely supports the permits. The governor as well as much of the state Legislature has publicly supported, at least, the testing.

“We’re definitely in the mix in these conversations,” said Hamilton Davis, Coastal Conservation League energy program director. “I think we will see pushback from at least some members of our state legislature.”

Isle of Palms will vote on a resolution next week opposing opening the offshore to exploration and drilling, said Mayor Dick Cronin, and he expects it to pass. A Charleston committee will vote on a similar resolution at its next meeting, and the measure will move to City Council if passed, said Mayor Joe Riley. Folly Beach is drafting a resolution, Mayor Tim Goodwin said. Edisto Beach passed a resolution against opening the waters in 2014.

Sullivan’s Island is watching the issue and waiting for more information, said Mayor Pat O’Neil. Neither Kiawah nor Seabrook islands are considering a resolution at this time, town officials said.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in late January began the process of opening waters at least 50 miles off the Southeast for leasing over a five-year period starting in 2017, effectively ending a 30-year ban on oil and gas exploration.

In South Carolina, Beaufort and Port Royal recently opposed it, joining Edisto Beach. The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce also has opposed it. More than 30 communities or groups from North Carolina to Florida have now opposed the permits, according to environmental advocate Oceana.

The first meeting, to be held March 11 in Mount Pleasant, is a public-input session that must be held by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to produce a required environmental analysis. It’s the first in a series of public hearings and comment periods to be held before BOEM decides whether to permit the testing and drilling off the state.

The input session is one in a series being held along the East Coast; it follows a Tuesday meeting in North Carolina that drew more than 200 people — as many as turned out at Virginia and Washington, D.C., meetings combined, according to The Associated Press.

It will be followed by an April public hearing in Charleston on permitting sonic surveys. Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is reviewing the first of seven or more expected applications to conduct testing off the coast.

Seismic-exploration companies survey for fossil fuels in the ocean bottom by detonating sound blasts from airguns that can deafen and injure marine animals, according to studies by the federal government and other groups. The findings are then sold to oil companies.

The blasts have used for at least 30 years by research groups as well as the industry, which maintains that exploration and drilling is much safer today than just five years ago. The BOEM approval put restrictions in place designed to mitigate potential injuries. Opponents say they are not strict enough.

“The (exploration) industry has more than four decades of geological and geophysical activity experience, and in those years there is no evidence that serious harm can occur from exposure to seismic air pulses,” said Gail Adams, International Association of Geophysical Contractors spokeswoman.

Geology and earlier testing off South Carolina have suggested there is little currently exploitable oil or natural gas to be found. Some estimates suggest drilling would produce enough gas and oil to meet demand for less than a week. Industry representatives say the search technology is more sophisticated now.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, an Isle of Palms resident whose district covers most of the state’s beaches, said the General Assembly could possibly weigh in supporting exploration and drilling during the public hearing process, but he thinks state leaders’ push for it is largely “a political exercise.”

The recent drop in oil prices is likely to continue, making new offshore drilling not cost-effective, he said, and more people would oppose it if they were to realize the “very dirty, very industrial” development that takes place onshore to support it.

If drilling were to take place, it would most likely be conducted on the edge of deep sea coral reefs — a prospect that concerns ocean conservation groups, which say disturbing the irreplaceable coral destroys it. The coral is a nursery for food fish and supports exotic creatures that might hold a key to new medicines.

The thousand-year-old living coral runs for miles just off the lip of the Continental Shelf, starting roughly 60 miles out.

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