The Trump administration Thursday moved to vastly expand offshore drilling from the Atlantic to the Arctic oceans — including off of South Carolina — by announcing a new five-year drilling plan for oil and gas exploration.
On the East Coast, the newly opened region would span from Georgia to Maine where drilling has been blocked for decades.
It is expected to create an immediate furor across South Carolina where numerous coastal communities have gone on the record opposing drilling, while some lawmakers see vast economic opportunities.
The announcement by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke launched the process to open 90 percent of offshore waters in the continental United States. Only some waters off Alaska are excluded.
The change comes a little more than a year after the Obama administration had closed Atlantic waters offshore after a massive outcry from coastal residents and businesses. Conservation groups already have been re-rallying that opposition.
The leasing would be from 2019-2024. The proposal now goes to a review, including public hearings.
"This is going to be the future of our country," Zinke said, adding that revenue from the off-coast work could be re-invested in public lands. "This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed."
The move is almost certain to face legal challenges.
"Offshore drilling threatens local communities, economies, and everything that makes the South a special place," said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
"In 2016, Southern communities along the Atlantic coast successfully fought off an attempt to bring offshore drilling to their coasts, and they will do the same again,” Weaver said.
South Carolina political leaders have shown a wide range of positions on the issue of coastal drilling and exploration. Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of Charleston is against it.
“Unfortunately, this proposal explicitly ignores local opposition because it is the single largest expansion of offshore drilling activity ever proposed," he said in a media statement, adding "I don’t think the arguments in favor of changing this policy are there, particularly when weighed against what most engineers suspect would be at most a four-month supply of oil reserves for our country.”
Fellow GOP Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens reiterated his firm support Thursday.
“The announcement coming out of the Trump Administration today is tremendous news for American energy independence, economic development, and job creation," Duncan said. "The Obama Administration’s shortsighted offshore plan set the U.S. behind our competitors around the world and trampled efforts to move toward energy independence."
A statement issued through the office of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who lives near the coast in Hanahan, said Scott "is supportive of offshore energy exploration, but, as a native of the coast, also sees it as a necessity to get buy-in from more coastal residents on this issue before moving forward," The Associated Press reported.
Obama closed off much of the Atlantic to drilling and did not approve leasing off the Southeast during the 2017-2022 period. In April, Trump ordered a review of those decisions.
The re-opening follows the administration's call for easing restrictions on oil rig operations and streamlining the reviews that protect marine animals during the leasing process. The lengthy process can seriously delay and restrict the work, and conservation groups used those delays as a tool to help derail leasing under Obama.
The re-opening also comes after a 2017 study that seismic blast testing for the oil and natural gas — the first step to drilling — harms not only wildlife but also elemental food source species such as zooplankton.
On the East Coast alone, opposition to the drilling and testing — which rose largely from protests in South Carolina — has grown to millions of East Coast residents, more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 41,000 businesses and a half-million fishing families.
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.
S.C. House members formed a subcommittee last spring — the Off-shore Drilling Ad Hoc Committee — to look at the pros and cons of leases for offshore testing and drilling. The subcommittee will report back to the Legislature.
Previous lease decisions have hinged partly on support of the onshore state government.
The committee has wrapped up hearings, and its report is expected to be submitted later this month.
Meanwhile, the stakes might soon climb in South Carolina. Zinke noted the country would soon be a major exporter of liquid natural gas.
A natural gas pipeline pumping 1.5 billion cubic feet per day is in the works to run from from West Virginia to the North Carolina-South Carolina border near Interstate 95. It's among a web of other gas pipeline expansions plotted through or near the Palmetto State.
Conservationists fear the new push to open the Atlantic offshore of South Carolina to oil and natural gas exploration and drilling has less to do with what could be found, and more to do with getting the onshore industry in place to export from those pipelines to Europe.
After decades of running natural gas out of the Gulf of Mexico to feed the country, fuel companies are now running natural gas and crude oil fracked from shale supplies in the Midwest and Northeast. The surplus is getting exported out of the Gulf of Mexico.
Those companies are looking to export to Europe from Atlantic ports such as Charleston. And that means money for local and state governments.
The move could be especially controversial on the Pacific coast where the decision would open federal waters off the coast of California for the first time in more than three decades.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.