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SC lawmakers debate dueling bills on offshore drilling in the Atlantic

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A South Carolina House committee debated two bills related to offshore drilling in the Atlantic. One was in support of oil and gas drilling. The other would ban offshore drilling infrastructure on South Carolina's coast. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

COLUMBIA — South Carolina is a house that stands divided when it comes to the issue of offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean — at least if you are following legislation in Columbia. 

A panel of state representatives debated dueling bills on Wednesday that could decide whether the oil and gas industry can locate infrastructure on South Carolina's 187-mile coast. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including many from Charleston County's legislative delegation, want to ban the state from permitting any pipelines, tanks or other infrastructure that might be needed by drilling companies. 

But another band of Republicans want to pass a law ensuring the oil and gas industry can't be shunned from South Carolina's shores. 

After hours of debate, the small panel of lawmakers advanced both competing bills.

It's too late for either bill to pass this year in the Statehouse, but the legislation is far from symbolic as President Donald Trump's administration continues to push for oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic. Both bills can be considered next year. 

Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, kicked off Wednesday's hearing talking about the "devastating effect" drilling could have on the coastline, estuaries and marine life. 

"I don't believe it is a partisan issue," McCoy told his colleagues. 

It's not. Many Democrats and Republicans in the Palmetto State are outspoken critics of efforts to open up the Atlantic to offshore drilling. A Winthrop University poll last year suggested 56 percent of state residents were opposed to it. 

The divide in the Statehouse is based more on where lawmakers live and how far their home is from the ocean. The five Republicans that sponsored the bill in support of the oil and gas industry live in the Upstate. 

Rep. Mike Burns, R-Greenville, for instance, wants the petroleum industry to construct drilling rigs off the coast so the state could take advantage of the tax money that might be made from oil and gas development. 

Burns pointed out the legislature can't block the federal government from leasing oil and gas in national waters anyway.

"The feds are going to have the final say as to what happens in national waters," Burns said. 

But the possible tax benefit isn't convincing lawmakers in the Lowcountry who represent businesses and homeowners along the coast.  

"We need to be able to protect our coast," said Rep. J.A. Moore, D-North Charleston. "I could not imagine a South Carolina coast with offshore drilling." 

Rep. Leon Stavirnakis, D-Charleston, took direct aim at the companies seeking to explore oil and gas reserves in the Atlantic. 

"It is using our state for outside power and gain," Stavrinakis said. "Their only interest is making money off of South Carolina." 

The lawmakers also listened to around a dozen people speak on the issue. The only person to testify in support of drilling was Mark Harmon, the American Petroleum Institute's lobbyist in South Carolina. 

Harmon argued that the United States will need more oil and gas in the future, and he argued the proposed ban against drilling infrastructure on the coast could have unintended consequences for the state. 

Jimmy Carroll, the mayor of the Isle of Palms, also spoke. He said he doesn't believe the state's coastal tourism economy can exist alongside the infrastructure needed for oil development. 

"They cannot both exist in a functioning economy," he said. 

Rep. Josiah Magnuson, R-Campobello, asked why the industry and the tourism economy couldn't work together. And he suggested the infrastructure could be located in Georgetown, a city that passed a resolution explicitly opposing offshore drilling. 

Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, thanked Magnuson for looking out for Georgetown and the rest of his legislative district. But the people living in Georgetown and the surrounding area have spoken, Hewitt said. 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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