Decision nears on oil and natural gas drilling offshore (copy) (copy)

Anti-drilling concern is turning from the threat of spills from offshore rigs to the industrialization of the South Carolina coast to export natural gas and oil. File/Provided

Searching and drilling for oil and natural gas offshore South Carolina or along the rest of the U.S. coast won't happen anytime soon, the Interior Department announced Thursday.

In a decision watched on both sides of the country, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the department will wait on the result of its appeal to a recent court ruling that centered on the Arctic before going forward anywhere offshore.

The decision came after a court blocked the Trump administration from restarting drilling in areas of the Alaskan Arctic where it was previously banned by the Obama administration.

Berhardt's comments were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The surprising announcement set off a wave of social media comment among conservation groups that oppose the work, along with millions of coastal residents and other interests.

"This decision is the result of constant pressure from coastal communities, environmental groups and elected officials who made it abundantly clear that offshore oil and gas drilling is dangerous, unwanted and a threat to our economy and way of life," said U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., who ran for office opposing the offshore work.

Cunningham drew both praise and criticism for blowing an air horn in a House subcommittee hearing on drilling to call attention to how loud and disruptive seismic blast-testing is to sea creatures such as whales.  

"However, this fight is far from over. We need legislation to permanently ban offshore oil and gas drilling and make sure that no administration can put our communities at risk. Congress must pass my bipartisan legislation as soon as possible,” he said.

Opponents have fought for more than six years against opening the Southeast coast to exploration. The Obama administration closed the waters in 2016. But President Donald Trump restarted the process for the years 2019 to 2023.

In South Carolina, the issue pits a concern for the environment and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry against potential revenue and jobs. Nearly every coastal government in the state, along with hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents, have publicly opposed the move.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has sued to stop the work, using the same arguments as were made in the Alaska case.  

Most coastal state legislators support some sort of ban. At least some inland legislators favor the pursuit of drilling for its economic opportunity and likelihood of attracting business.

After dueling bills that either blocked or promoted onshore infrastructure to support the drilling work each passed a House subcommittee, the Senate last week approved a proviso by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, to prevent state or local governments from approving plans to build any support facilities.

The proviso — which is a clause in the proposed budget — would take effect for the budget year. The budget is still being debated.

The first of five interested companies has won a federal permit that could include seismic testing off South Carolina, and is being sued by opponents. A decision on the remaining permits are expected by the end of April. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist, was expected to push drilling forward after his appointment earlier this month.

Expanding offshore drilling was a campaign promise and has been enough of a priority for Trump that during the partial federal shutdown late last year and earlier this year he called back Bureau of Ocean Energy Management workers — with pay — to keep processing offshore seismic testing permits in the Atlantic.

The testing was expected to be permitted any day now, despite the growing opposition that included Gov. Henry McMaster, an early Trump supporter, and other Republicans who promoted environmental concerns associated with drilling.

"Today’s announcement is great news," McMaster said in a statement Thursday. "South Carolinians can remain confident that we will continue our efforts to protect our pristine coastline and invaluable tourism industry from the destructive threats of seismic testing and offshore drilling."

Nat Mund, the Southern Environmental Law Center's director of federal affairs, said he hoped the move signals the administration is listening to the bipartisan opposition.

“Secretary Bernhardt may be closely aligned with the oil industry but he also recognizes the political reality of such an unpopular proposal," Mund said.

Randall Luthi, the National Ocean Industries Association president, said the hold was a not a final plan, but called it a hard stop that negates months of environmental and economic analysis for the work.

"While there is no firm guess on what 'indefinitely' means, it clearly indicates we won’t see a draft plan tomorrow, nor did we expect to. However, Interior should still evaluate the option of moving ahead with a proposed plan," he said.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.