With hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from a well disaster, a South Carolina legislative committee this week did not take action on a resolution that would have opened the three-mile state waters offshore to exploration and drilling.
But the spill leaves South Carolinians on either side of the issue retrenching rather than changing their minds about whether to drill for natural gas and oil off the Lowcountry coast. The concerns don't seem to be derailing the state's push to drill.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, had to help fight back against a bill in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday.
"I am just astounded that a bill like that even ... was introduced. We're not going to have an oil rig three miles off Folly Beach or off Isle of Palms or Sullivan's," he said. But Campsen is not in all instances opposed to drilling and exploration, he said; it would need to happen far offshore for him to consider supporting it.
Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a candidate for governor who sponsored the bill, said the drilling has gone on in the Gulf safely for many years, and that experts are saying the current situation could have been avoided. He's not discouraged that the bill in all likelihood won't become law this year, he said. New legislation with a far-reaching impact typically takes several years to pass.
"Accidents do happen. It is something to be concerned with, but you can't stop progress because, I guess you might say, a freak accident," he said. "You can't just plan for doom and gloom. You have to plan for progress."
The legislation would have followed a bill that passed earlier, directing S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control regulators to expedite permits for exploration and drilling after federal restrictions are approved.
Experts generally agree that not a whole lot of oil lies off South Carolina. They disagree over how much natural gas might be out there and whether it can be found in the type of field that can be commercially drilled. The politically charged issue of whether to go after it has South Carolinians divided on whether the potential for new energy reserves and revenue outweighs the risks to an $18 billion tourism industry, fishing and other interests.
The slick from the Gulf spill moved into the Louisiana wetlands on Friday, threatening the nursery habitat in what experts said could become the worst environmental disaster in decades. An S.C. Department of Natural Resources environmental quality manager said wildlife managers here would have many of the same concerns with a spill offshore. South Carolina and Georgia have nearly half the saltwater marshes on the East Coast.
"We have seen marsh areas recover from spills in the past. But (a large spill) could cover the marsh area so completely that at least the top area would die. It might take a few years to come back," said Priscilla Wendt, DNR manager.
Stuart Reeves, president of Starfleet Marine Transportation in Mount Pleasant, has conveyed workers back and forth from oil wells in the Gulf and would like to pick up the same work off Charleston. "It's a very big problem when you have these geologic pressures that come out of nowhere. It's not man-made. When the companies take on a responsibility to drill through the earth, they take on a responsibility to keep a cap on it," he said. "Generally speaking it's a very, very safe industry. I have no doubt they'll do a safe job at whatever they do."
Opponents of exploration and drilling have seized on the disaster as a prime example of the risk facing South Carolina. Quality of life, the environment and tourism-related business are all at risk, said Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League. "The coast is far too valuable to risk for the small quantity (of oil and gas) that may be found," she said. "It's totally not worth it."
Denver Merrill, executive director of the pro-growth, pro-environment group Citizens for Sound Conservation, said the timing of the explosion that coincides with the end of the Legislature's session likely will delay the passage of pro-drilling legislation this year.
"The General Assembly is still going to look at it next year. ... The accident, for good reason, is going to allow us to do more of an education effort, so people are more informed and look at the economic and environmental concerns," he said.