Gov. Henry McMaster is asking the Trump administration to exempt South Carolina from offshore drilling, saying the state's tourism-rich coast is too precious an entity to put at risk.
"We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty, and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline,” McMaster said Wednesday.
The comments came a day after politically valuable Florida received an exemption from plans announced just a week ago by the Department of the Interior to open thousands of miles of Atlantic and Pacific coastal zones to offshore exploration.
It also foreshadows a potential election year showdown with the White House involving a Southern governor who was one of the president's earliest supporters.
McMaster's vocal opposition came after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said late Tuesday that drilling would be "off the table" when it comes to waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean off Florida.
He called Florida unique because of its valuable coastal tourism economy.
McMaster told reporters Wednesday he wants the same consideration for South Carolina, which depends on a $20 billion tourism industry covering 190 miles of beach and marsh coast.
“It is just too important," he said. "This is a matter of serious importance to us in South Carolina.”
On Wednesday, Zinke's spokeswoman, Heather Swift, said the governors of both North and South Carolina had requested meetings with the secretary.
The Trump administration on Jan. 4 proposed to vastly expand offshore drilling to virtually all waters from the Atlantic to the Arctic oceans — including off of South Carolina — and the Pacific Coast by opening for review a new five-year plan to lease those areas for oil and gas exploration.
Opponents in South Carolina have argued for years that the limited potential for fossil fuel resources off the coast is not worth jeopardizing the waters. Opponents here and elsewhere on the East Coast has grown to millions of individuals and from more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials and 41,000 businesses.
Trump's plan to exempt Florida drew especially harsh criticism, including from members of Congress and advocacy groups Wednesday.
"You can't say 'I don't want to see an oil rig from Mar-a-Lago' as I look out from the waters of Palm Beach, but it's OK to look at an oil rig out from Hilton Head or Charleston, South Carolina," Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of Mount Pleasant said on CNN.
Some criticized the method used to specifically exempt Florida.
“The way they did it is just baffling,” said Nat Mund, federal affairs director for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This whole thing is a mess both politically and procedurally. If they pre-decided (leases) before public comment, that violates the law.”
If tourism is to be the standard, then South Carolina has to be exempted, too, said Alan Hancock of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.
"As it stands, the federal government’s misguided plan imperils our $20 billion tourism economy,” said Hancock.
“I want to invite Secretary Zinke to visit the coasts of every Atlantic Coast state with their respective governors," said Frank Knapp, president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast. "He will find that each is unique and generates tourism, commercial fishing and recreation dollars that drive their local and state economies."
Industry supporters countered the move was premature. Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association organization of oil exploration companies, called the move disappointing.
“The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act clearly outlines a deliberative, inclusive and lengthy review process before any preliminary leasing proposals are finalized," he said, adding the decision curtails exploration and study that could translate into jobs and additional energy sources for the state.
The Trump administration announcement abruptly reversed its plans to open that state among nearly all of the United States coastline to drilling. The decision was made under pressure from Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Florida is a pivotal swing state in presidential elections.
McMaster — who is running for his first full term in a deep field — has consistently supported Trump but said earlier he has serious concerns about offshore work. State political leaders are divided about drilling and exploration. Warring bills before the Legislature oppose and support it.
Sen. Steven Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, supports the drilling as a potential economic revitalization for the beleaguered Georgetown port.
“Gov. McMaster has to do what he thinks is right. But if it were me, I’d do it differently,” Goldfinch said Wednesday. “It’s important to understand what resources we have at our disposal. To foreclose on that whole process is troubling to me."
But Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, made a political case for the administration to agree to McMaster's request.
”If (the exemption) is good enough for Florida, if the Trump administration is responsive to the request of the Florida governor, he ought to be responsive to the request of our governor,” Campsen said, pointing out that McMaster was the first statewide elected official in the nation to endorse candidate Donald Trump, later giving him a nomination speech at the Republican convention.
Previous lease decisions have hinged partly on support of the onshore state government. In South Carolina, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control — under McMaster's purview — can approve or reject federal lease proposals, although its decision is not make-or-break.
Staff reporter Jamie Lovegrove and The Associated Press contributed to this report.