Offshore Drilling Regulations (copy) (copy)

The offshore oil drilling platform 'Gail' operated by Venoco, Inc., is shown off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2009.  AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File

On the heels of a political setback in the November election and public sentiment rekindled against offshore drilling, an oil industry group released a report saying the work could bring South Carolina $1.6 billion in tax revenue alone.

That money would be on top of $2.2 billion in spending here from the work itself, according to the American Petroleum Institute report released Friday. The figures would be over a 20-year period.

Drilling opponents quickly jumped on the report, calling it misleading and desperate.

Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham, who won the 1st District seat that represents coastal communities by campaigning against opening the offshore to drilling, said voters sent a clear message that the state's beaches are not for sale.

"Big oil will tell us that offshore drilling will result in sunshine and rainbows," Cunningham said. "But the people of the Lowcountry are smart and understand the risk isn’t worth the reward. Our beaches and tourism economy are much too important to risk even one oil spill. As long as I’m in Congress it will not happen."

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Joe Cunningham and Patrick O'Neil.JPG (copy)

Democrat Joe Cunningham speaks with Sullivan's Island Mayor Patrick O'Neil after a celebratory press conference Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018 at ILA Hall in Charleston. Cunningham won the South Carolina 1st congressional District seat over Republican Kate Arrington. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The potential revenue would come at a time when it could help South Carolina, said Mark Harmon, director of the state chapter of the institute.

"We can use additional economic improvements, investment and job creation," he said. The money could be used to reduce property taxes, pay for college tuition hikes and to rebuild infrastructure, he said.

"We can't overstate the benefits this rare opportunity could provide," Harmon said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council suggested the numbers are wildly inflated.

In 2016, Louisiana received only $6.4 million in revenues from the production of more offshore oil and natural gas than could be found off South Carolina overall, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, said Bob Deans, the council's strategic engagement director.

Peg Howell, a former petroleum engineer who lives on Pawleys Island, also discounted the numbers.

"The industry workers would come from the Gulf states," she said. "They would not be paid or taxed in South Carolina. The companies' headquarters will be out-of-state with minimal local operations, and the oil industry is very good at avoiding paying taxes."

Howell is a member of Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic, a coastal grassroots group.

Even by the report's estimates, that tax revenue wouldn't match an estimated $1.99 billion generated over 20 years just by tourism accommodations taxes in the coastal counties of Horry, Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort, she said, which could be hurt by the industrialization of the coast for the work and the threat of spills.

"This is clearly another attempt by the institute to mislead the public that there's going to be some benefit to the offshore work. They must be getting pretty desperate," Howell said. "It comes back to it not being worth putting the tourism economy at risk from even one spill."

Harmon disagreed. According to the report, South Carolina is projected to see the second highest levels of in-state spending and thus state and local tax revenues, he said.

"The possible cumulative addition of state and local tax revenues due to industry spending in the state totaling more than $1,500,000 is significant," Harmon said. "The studies estimate jobs, spending, taxes and royalties that will occur in South Carolina."

State Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Summerville, who was defeated by Cunningham in their 1st District congressional duel after switching her position to oppose the offshore work in South Carolina, did not reply after a phone call to her spokesman asking for comment.

Millions oppose the exploration and drilling off the East Coast proposed by the Trump administration. In South Carolina, the numbers include Gov. Henry McMaster, nearly every coastal government, hundreds of businesses and thousands of coastal residents.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.