More than 150 people signed up to attend a recent meeting on Seabrook Island to oppose offshore oil and natural gas drilling.
But only about 70 showed up.
That's the uncertainty conservation group organizers face in advance of a federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management public meeting on Feb. 13 in Columbia on the Trump administration's plan to reopen the South Carolina offshore to the work.
Can they pull together enough people stop it again?
The meeting is designed to hear public comment for one of the most controversial issues facing the coast and state in years. Organizers say they need a massive public outcry similar to what helped convince the Obama administration in 2016 not to allow leases here. They know Trump appointees are pushing to open nearly all the coastal areas in the United States — despite wide opposition.
"We have to get people more energized," Jim Sporn, a member of the Sea Islands Action Network, said at the Seabrook meeting. "We have to get BOEM off the mark."
The numbers suggest they might have a chance. More than 60,000 people nationally already have commented on the leasing plans, according to BOEM, though it is too early to calculate what the majority trend is, spokeswoman Connie Gillette said.
More than 3,105 people in South Carolina signed a petition to Gov. Henry McMaster thanking him for his opposition to offshore drilling and asking him to pursue an exemption with the Trump administration, said Alan Hancock of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.
More than 200 showed up at a recent organizing meeting on Pawleys Island; more than 40 appeared at a Beaufort meeting.
"I think people are just as fired up if not more fired up than before. We’re expecting hundreds," Hancock said.
Organizers are trying to load buses to bring people to Columbia from Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Beaufort. As of late last week, about 75 people had signed up for rides, Hancock said.
Unlike the exhaustive rounds of coastal town-to-town meetings BOEM held in the region before the Obama administration decision — meetings that helped the opposition coalesce — the Columbia meeting is the only one scheduled in the state. The four-hour meeting starts at 3 p.m.
Oil industry and conservation opponents have fought for more than six years over opening the Southeast coast to exploration. The Obama administration closed the waters in 2016, but Trump restarted the process for the years 2019 to 2023.
The issue pits a concern for the environment and a billion-dollar tourism industry against potential revenue and jobs.
With federal momentum now shifting toward the leasing, though, proponents have not made as high profile a public push as opponents this time around. For example, the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance is not taking an official position, said group President Sara Hazzard.
When asked if the alliance had submitted comments to BOEM, a spokeswoman said the group would not comment.
Along the East Coast alone, opposition has grown to millions of individuals and from more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials and 41,000 businesses. Nearly every coastal government in South Carolina, hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents have publicly opposed the move.
But inland, the issue isn't as galvanizing. Conservation leaders in Greenville and Spartanburg said they weren't aware of any organized effort to bring people to the BOEM meeting.
Organizers plan a rally at 11 a.m. on the 13th on the steps of the Statehouse, featuring lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. They want to hold a second rally outside the BOEM meeting at the Doubletree by Hilton on Bush River Road.
In contrast to the low-key, informational-style BOEM meeting, conservation advocate Oceana plans to hold a formal public hearing in a nearby hotel conference room, then submit the comments to BOEM for the record.
"We definitely expect hundreds" at the events, said Samantha Siegel of Oceana.
BOEM said it's ready for a crowd. The agency has hosted more than 700 people at some of the meetings, Gillette said.
"We like it like that. We want to have people come. The more people the better," Gillette said.