The future of oil and natural gas exploration and drilling off South Carolina might well hinge on Gov. Henry McMaster more than the legion of opponents.
The Trump administration Thursday proposed to vastly expand offshore drilling to virtually all waters from the Atlantic to the Arctic oceans — including off of South Carolina by opening for review a new five-year plan to lease those areas for oil and gas exploration.
Previous lease decisions have hinged partly on support of the onshore state government. McMaster might be the difference maker.
Like their federal delegation counterparts, state political leaders have sharp differences of opinion about drilling and exploration, and warring bills before the Legislature oppose and support it. The governor — who is running for for his first full term in a deep field — has consistently supported Trump but said he has serious concerns about offshore work.
The governors of North Carolina, Florida and Virginia already have opposed the Trump move. 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.
McMaster gave his position when asked by the media Friday, but offered little elaboration.
"We don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. We don't want to take any chances. Our tourism industry is one of the finest in the United States," McMaster said.
He didn't answer questions about what he can do to prevent drilling.
"Our coast is an economic engine, just like other industries we have. We have to be sure that we do nothing to endanger lives, the people, the natural resources that represent our coast," he also said.
Despite instituting a ramrod approach to reviewing potential leases that has curtailed public hearings and conservation challenges, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke told reporters at a news conference Thursday announcing the move that states would have a say in whether testing and drilling take place off their shores.
States "should look at the science, look at the (fossil fuels) resource, look at the options. But certainly the states are going to have a voice," he said. "We want to work with stakeholders. The Department of the Interior shouldn't be an adversary. We should be a partner."
In South Carolina, those interests are organizing to rally against the offshore work at the public hearing in Columbia Feb. 13.
Alan Hancock of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League made no bones about the importance of McMaster's voice in the argument.
"South Carolinians should absolutely comment on the Trump Administration, but the key voice on this is Gov. Henry McMaster," Hancock said. "He needs to step into the arena and make a strong public statement in support of South Carolina's coast."
The Legislature so far has been divided. Faced with the warring bills, House officials formed a committee to look at the pros and cons of the issue. The subcommittee will report back to the Legislature this month. But committee members said it will make no recommendations.
The division is illustrated by Sen. Steven Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, and Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, who represent adjoining coastal districts. Goldfinch supports the drilling as a potential economic revitalization for the beleaguered Georgetown port. Hewitt opposes it as something not worth the risk to the tourism economy.
“We are foolish if we don’t find out at least what’s out there. We’ve got to know what we have out there, and then we can have an informed debate,” Goldfinch recently told The Post and Courier.
"Every single county and municipality within my district has passed a resolution opposing it," Hewitt said.
In South Carolina, the idea is roundly opposed by coastal residents, businesses and local governments. For many, the fight over drilling cuts to the heart of coastal life, where interests are divided between exploring for the potential economic benefit of fossil fuels, to restricting exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy.
Coastal port towns could be industrialized to support not only the drilling work but the export of natural gas from fracking work in the interior United States. Pipelines already are in planning stages.
In 2016, before President Barach Obama closed the coast to drilling, opposition from conservation interests and concerned residents on the East Coast — which rose largely from protests in South Carolina — grew to millions of individuals and from more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials and 41,000 businesses.
After the Obama administration held a series of public hearings along the coast on its drilling proposal, the Trump administration is holding just one. It will be that Columbia meeting in February.
McMaster said there is work to be done.
"As you know, the mayors, I think, of every city at least up to Virginia on the Atlantic Coast have come out opposed. And I think one of the reasons is the questions of where the refineries go. Where do the tanks go? What about the trucks that come in and out? In addition to the possibility of spills," he said.
But he hedged on what action he might take.
"There are a lot of questions," he said. "We have to be very very careful with this."
Staff reporters Andrew Brown and Chloe Johnson contributed to this report.