COLUMBIA — Leaders in South Carolina and other states along the East Coast are readying legislation and possible lawsuits against President Donald Trump’s plans to permit drilling in the Atlantic Ocean as they figure out how to stop or stymie attempts to extract oil and gas offshore.
On Nov. 30, the Trump administration approved the use of seismic testing along the Atlantic coast to survey for oil and gas reserves under the ocean floor. It’s the most recent step toward Trump’s goal of opening up the Atlantic to drilling platforms and the jobs, infrastructure and pollutants that come with it.
The approval of the seismic testing set off a new round of hand wringing among drilling opponents up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and prompted federal and state lawmakers in South Carolina to renew their calls for legislation to combat offshore drilling, which they fear will harm the coastal tourism economy.
Gov. Henry McMaster, who opposes drilling off South Carolina's coast, personally lobbied Trump over the issue. The pleas have yet to result in any policy change.
Meanwhile, Democratic attorneys general from Maine to North Carolina have staked out their position against Trump and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is responsible for regulating drilling in coastal waters.
Several steps still need to be taken before oil and gas companies can begin buying up segments of the ocean floor. But many legislative and legal leaders in coastal states aren’t interested in waiting for that to happen.
Quick and pragmatic way forward
Over the past two years, there’s been no shortage of congressional legislation seeking to block Trump’s 2017 order that opened up the Atlantic and nearly all of the country’s coastal waters to oil and gas exploration.
Some of the bills called for an outright ban on any permitting or drilling along the Atlantic Coast. Others, including a bill sponsored by former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, called for a 10-year moratorium on any leases being signed with oil and gas developers.
But in the Republican-controlled House those bills never went anywhere.
That could change with Democrats retaking control of the body for the first time in eight years. The 2018 election saw Democrats pick up at least 39 seats in the House, including newly elected congressman Joe Cunningham of Charleston, who ran a campaign focused on stopping any offshore oil and gas development.
Cunningham is currently focused on finding the “quickest and most pragmatic way possible” to pass legislation to reinstate the drilling ban that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama once maintained, said Tyler Jones, the congressman-elect's spokesman.
The election results give the House’s Democratic leadership, including new majority whip Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, the ability to decide what is taken up on the House floor. It also gives Democrats control of the committees where earlier legislation went to die.
But with Trump in the White House and Republicans maintaining control of the Senate, it’s still very unlikely that Congress will be able to counteract Trump’s promise of “unleashing American energy.”
As a result, South Carolina state officials are looking for their own way to fight back.
Strangling the industry
The fear of oil derricks sprouting up off the coast of South Carolina has rallied large opposition in coastal communities including Charleston, Beaufort and Myrtle Beach — the heart of the state's $21 billion tourism industry. And the public angst is causing state lawmakers in those regions to plot their own resistance against Trump’s energy ambitions.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, plans to reintroduce a bill when the Legislature reconvenes next month that would effectively hamstring oil and gas companies that might attempt to drill wells in the Atlantic.
“It’s obvious their intent is to move forward,” Stavrinakis said.
Most states, including South Carolina, only have authority over the ocean floor within about 3½ miles of the shoreline. So instead of contesting the companies at sea, Stavrinakis and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, are drafting legislation to strangle the industry on the coast.
The bill, which was initially filed in 2017, would ban state agencies and local governments from permitting or planning any type of infrastructure needed to support the offshore drilling rigs. That would include things like pipelines, refineries, disposal sites for drilling waste and fabrication yards for the drilling platforms.
Some coastal states, like New Jersey, already passed similar legislation. Others, like Maryland, passed laws to increase the legal damages corporations would face in state court if an oil spill occurred.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, is also starting to look into how the state can expand its authority over onshore activities. He wants to know how other states legally control and regulate the coastal infrastructure needed to support offshore exploration.
“My major point is very simple,” Campsen said. “The industrialization of the coast to support offshore drilling is solely incompatible with South Carolina’s current coastline.”
Much of Charleston’s legislative delegation may be on board, but any legislation seeking to restrict oil and gas development is still going to meet resistance in the Republican-led Legislature.
State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, represents a huge swath of South Carolina’s coastline from Surfside Beach down into Charleston County. He is opposed to oil drilling off the coast, but believes the state could foster gas drilling.
As a result, Goldfinch is not ready to pass a law that blocks drilling companies from investing in South Carolina.
“I appreciate them representing their constituents,” Goldfinch said of lawmakers in Charleston and Myrtle Beach. “I don’t feel like that’s what’s best for my constituents and my coastline.”
He’s not the only GOP lawmaker to feel that way.
A Republican divide
The issue of offshore drilling has split the Palmetto State’s Republican Party.
You only need to look at the bills that were sponsored last year in the Statehouse to see the dividing lines.
Almost all of Charleston’s state representatives sponsored a resolution last January to express their opposition to drilling off South Carolina’s “precious coast.”
Less than eight days later, three Republicans from the Greenville and Spartanburg area filed another resolution heralding their support for oil and gas exploration and its “massive economic benefits.”
Many of South Carolina’s members of Congress, including Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, did not respond to questions last week about whether they would vote for a bill that bans offshore drilling in the Atlantic either temporarily or permanently.
But public statements in the past show the state’s congressional delegation is fractured. U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, sent a letter to the U.S. Interior Department in June that called drilling an “unnecessary risk for tourism reliant coastal communities.”
On the other side, Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican who represents the state’s northwest corner, sent a letter to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in March voicing his support for Trump’s wide-open policy on offshore drilling.
Duncan opened the letter by saying he was speaking for his constituents in the Upstate and “the state as whole.”
“An overwhelming majority of residents in South Carolina support increased exploration and development,” he wrote.
A recent poll from Winthrop University suggested a slim majority of South Carolinians are opposed to drilling.
It's a reality shared by many of the states along the Atlantic coast.
Maryland's Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh is prepared to sue the federal government as soon as he has standing in court to protect his state's coast and the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States.
Frosh, who has a record of suing the Trump administration, said a lawsuit against the newly approved seismic testing could be filed in the coming weeks or months. And another can be expected if the Trump administration actually goes through with issuing leases in the Atlantic.
"We will bring suit in order to stop it," Frosh told The Post and Courier. "The threat of litigation is imminent."
Ten attorneys general along the Atlantic Coast sent a not-so-veiled message to the Trump administration in February: Either halt your plans or get ready for court.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, was not among that group. He was one of only three attorneys general on the East Coast, along with New Hampshire and Georgia's state attorneys, who didn't send a letter to the Interior Department requesting the same type of drilling exemption that Florida received last January.
Robert Kittle, Wilson's spokesperson, confirmed this week that the attorney general is opposed to offshore drilling. But Wilson has yet to discuss a possible lawsuit over the Trump administration's actions with anyone, including Gov. McMaster who says he "will do anything and everything" to stop drilling and seismic testing.
Wilson, Kittle added, "is willing to have that conversation to decide on a strategy that best suits our state’s position and needs."
Wilson has no qualms about suing the federal government himself or signing his name onto lawsuits filed by others. He’s done so in cases dealing with the Affordable Care Act, the Clean Power Plan and the U.S. Department of Energy’s decision to shut down a troubled nuclear project at the Savannah River Site.
Wilson could soon get the chance to attach his name to another lawsuit in the near future — if he chooses to.
Correction: An earlier version of this story improperly stated how many attorneys general on the East Coast didn't send a letter to the Department of the Interior. New Hampshire's attorney general also did not send a letter to federal officials.