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Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, along with Isle of Palms Mayor Dick Cronin, Edisto Island Mayor Jane Darby and Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pat O’Neil, held a press conference at the Maritime Center on Friday, April 28, 2017, to oppose President Donald Trump's executive order that could open the waters off South Carolina to offshore oil drilling. Brad Nettles/Staff

South Carolina coastal mayors Friday decried the Trump administration order that could reopen the offshore to oil and natural gas exploration and drilling.

"The disruption to tourism would be substantial. The risks are just too great," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said during a press conference at the Charleston Maritime Center.

He was joined by Mayors Dick Cronin of Isle of Palms, Pat O'Neil of Sullivan's Island and Jane Darby of Edisto Beach. It was one of several press events held by local anti-drilling groups along the coast stressing how the tourism economy, which creates one in every 10 jobs in the state, is far more valuable than any gains from the oil industry would be.

"Tourism is the economic engine that drives the coastal economy," Darby said. "We implore President Trump not to sacrifice our jobs to create jobs in the oil and gas industry."

The Trump administration Friday ordered a review of the Obama administration closings and lease denials of potential new offshore drilling sites, including within the U.S. South Atlantic region.

The order "is a great day for America workers, unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs," Trump said at the signing ceremony.

His order doesn't immediately change the prospects for testing and drilling off the South Carolina coast because any new policy action of implementation would be several years away, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters in a Thursday briefing. 

More troubling for those who oppose the drilling work is that Trump's order also calls for a review of all regulations concerning oil, natural gas and renewable energy leasing in federal waters as part of a policy "to encourage energy exploration and production, including on the Outer Continental Shelf."

That could lead to streamlining the exhaustive leasing process and easing strict requirements that opponents have used to fight leases.

The executive order is aimed more at Alaskan waters and reversing the permanent closing of Atlantic waters from the Chesapeake Bay north, where the most promising reserves might lie. Leases were denied for waters from North Carolina south, but the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management issues leases on a five-year rotation. With the 2017-2022 period just decided, the bureau is beginning its review for the next period anyhow.

Still, opposition quickly surfaced at the South Carolina congressional level. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., represents the coastal 1st District and introduced a long-shot bill Friday that would suspend exploration and drilling off the East Coast for 10 years.

Energy, economy

The reversal has been expected for weeks. Trump campaigned partly on overturning the bans placed or reinstated by the Obama administration. Coastal elected officials, residents, conservation and business groups opposed it with a swarm of statements and protests.

Industry representatives say advances in drilling technology have made the operations safer, and that seismic surveys have taken place for a half-century with no direct evidence they harm sea animals, commercial fishing or tourism. Industry supporters say offshore fossil fuels have been under-utilized and could be a greater source of jobs.

National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi called Trump's order a new day and a new attitude.

"With the expected economic growth worldwide, we will need more energy than is currently being produced, and all forms of energy will be needed to meet the growing demand. Offshore oil and natural gas have proven to be reliable and cost efficient sources of energy," he said.

“For years, we have sought a comprehensive U.S. energy policy," he added. "However, in reality, our nation’s energy policy has been a cobbled-together raft, drifting with the prevailing political winds and currents of the ‘favored’ energy source of the day. This executive order can be used to craft a long-term, consistent energy blueprint to provide jobs, state and federal revenue, and economic and energy security for America."

Conservation opponents say the recent record of oil spills and research on wildlife belies the safety claims. A groundswell of opposition among coastal residents and conservation groups has grown to millions, including more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 41,000 businesses and a half million fishing families.

"If Secretary Zinke allows BOEM to do its job, to factually weigh the nation’s real energy needs versus our immensely successful Atlantic Coast economy dependent on our healthy ocean, growing objections from coastal states and the loud opposition of citizen stakeholders; we are confident that the Atlantic Ocean will be kept free of offshore drilling," said Frank Knapp, president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast.

But Knapp said he is concerned the BOEM process will be subverted by industry influence. 

"The industry wants more and more money for their pockets, and does not mind stiffing the people. It's all about dollars to them," said JeanMarie Neal, of the South Carolina-based residents group Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic. "Every mayor in coastal South Carolina says this type of industry will hurt their communities. The fact that they are united says a lot." 

'Every square foot'

State governors are given a say in BOEM decision-making, and former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley was part of a coalition that worked largely behind the scenes with industry lobbyists to urge federal officials to open the Southeast coast to oil and gas exploration.

Gov. Henry McMaster has not opened or closed the door on it. At a recent press conference he cited the need to be energy sufficient and secure, but added, "We also need to protect our precious natural resources."

The state's federal legislative delegations have varied views but largely support testing to see what's there. Sanford has vocally opposed it, but Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. has criticized Obama's decision, attended Trump's order signing and said Americans having instant access to electricity is a quality of life issue.

"This doesn’t mean that I think we should start the unrestricted drilling of every square foot off the coast," he said. "What I support are the people of South Carolina’s rights to know the resources that may, or may not be, accessible."

The brewing battle is the latest among many that conservation groups expect as Trump and a Republican Congress move to rescind laws and restrictions set by Obama — battles they expect might wind up in the courts.

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