COLUMBIA — More than 200 protesters from across South Carolina converged at the Statehouse on Tuesday to shout their opposition to oil and natural gas exploration and drilling offshore.
The midday rally preceded a federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management meeting to inform the public on plans to offer leases for the work, including off the Palmetto State coast.
In contrast to the series of meetings held before the Obama administration in 2017 decided against allowing the leases, the Columbia meeting is the only one scheduled in South Carolina.
The Trump administration is pushing to open nearly all the coastal areas in the United States despite wide opposition.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., returned to rally on the Capitol steps that he previously walked as South Carolina's governor a decade ago. He was joined by 13 state legislators who spoke mostly in pairs, both Republican and Democrat, against the drilling.
“Those local voices that joined me today understand the unique look and feel of South Carolina’s coastline," Sanford said in a statement after addressing the crowd, many of whom arrived by buses from around the state.
"They know the importance of tourism as an economic driver for our state," he said. "And they join every single coastal municipality in South Carolina in coming out against drilling off our coast."
As the rally took place, Gov. Henry McMaster, who did not attend, told The Post and Courier he would keep pressing federal officials with his opposition to leasing offshore.
He did not reply when asked whether he believes the state needs to take legal action against the administration if they don't get an exemption like Florida received.
"We'll continue to make the case and we're hopeful to get the right decision," McMaster said.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, who is running for governor, held a press conference to say he supports exploring for fossil fuels offshore to see what resource might be buried.
"We've got to find out what's out there. We've got to find out where it is. Then we have to have an extremely detailed, open conversation," he said. "Do the math. Find the risks, weigh it against the benefits, then make an informed decision."
On the Statehouse steps there was none of that. Among legislators who urged the crowd to not let oil tycoons get their way, newly elected state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, drew a roar when she said on her fourth day in the Legislature she introduced a resolution opposing offshore drilling.
Rep. Michael Rivers, D-St. Helena Island, went further.
"You can't make sense out of stupid," he said. "Anyone who says drilling off our coast makes sense is stuck on stupid."
The rally attendees wore lobster hats, anti-drilling shirts and, in some cases, "Danger"-inscribed safety vests.
Among them was Otis Outing of Columbia, who learned about the rally in the news and decided on the spot to join it.
"It's a worthy issue; so many people enjoy the coast," he said.
Just before the federal meeting at a hotel on the other side of town started, the throng crammed into a nearby room for a second rally. In the next room down, a half-dozen men in suits held a media-only conference to support the drilling.
A representative of the South Carolina Energy Forum was joined by those from Palmetto Promise Institute, the South Carolina African-American Chamber of Commerce, Vets4Energy and the South Carolina Association of Taxpayers.
They all advocated the jobs and opportunity drilling would bring.
The offshore work "really could be transformative for the state, if they do it right," said Don Weaver of the Taxpayers Association. "We need to expand our economy and not raise more taxes."
The Bureau of Ocean and Land Management meeting is part of a 60-day public comment period on the Trump administration's five-year program (2019-2024) for oil and gas development. The draft plan lists 47 potential lease sales off the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts, which would be the largest number ever proposed.
Andrew Brown and Joseph Cranney contributed to this report.