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Commentary: Explore Offshore coalition is broad and dynamic

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Arctic Offshore Drilling

FILE - In this May 14, 2015 file photo, the oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer is towed toward a dock and in view of the Space Needle in Elliott Bay in Seattle. The first oil and gas production wells in federal Arctic waters have been approved by U.S. regulators. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

As chairman of Explore Offshore South Carolina — a multi-state, bipartisan coalition effort launched this summer — I am proud of the work we are doing to engage and educate citizens across our state about the important issue of American energy independence.

That is why, after a recent interview with a Post and Courier reporter about the economic and job opportunities this industry could deliver for our state, I was very surprised and disheartened to see the article the paper ended up printing.

The headline — “African-Americans being targeted by lobbyists to support offshore drilling” — and story that followed framed Explore Offshore as “a campaign targeting minority community leaders, including African-Americans, to promote offshore exploration.”

It’s unclear what driving force led The Post and Courier to take this direction with its reporting in this case. I work very hard to help improve under-served communities throughout our state, both at my full-time job as chairman of the S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce and by volunteering to head up Explore Offshore S.C. Perhaps that leads some to see me as being a black business leader instead of simply a business leader.

The newspaper failed to acknowledge that our coalition is in actuality a broad and diverse group of South Carolinians who support access to American energy — as evidenced by the broad, diverse and dynamic coalition members throughout South Carolina who support domestic American energy development.

Framing our coalition effort as “exploitative” with claims that it “has sparked some outrage” appears to be an attempt to create a racially motivated controversy where none actually existed. It then goes on to quote the heads of leading opposition groups to offshore drilling — who happen to be white — and a minority policymaker who noted that she “has not been contacted by Gilchrist or the Explore Offshore effort.”

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Here are the facts the public should know: Explore Offshore is an initiative backed by local businesses, associations, elected officials and community leaders united by their support of accessing sources of domestic energy to create a more self-sufficient American energy portfolio. The project was initiated by the American Petroleum Institute and their research enables us to use data-supported facts and real-world examples to engage with communities and educate citizens — regardless of their skin color, wallet size or political leanings. In South Carolina, we have built up a coalition very much representative of the state’s diverse population

South Carolina’s unemployment rate has improved to 15th best in the nation, but conversely, our median household income of $50,570 is nearly $10,000 less than the national average. Additionally, more than 150,000 residents along our coast have incomes below the poverty level which, for some coastal counties, accounted for over 20 percent of the population.

Translation: Too many South Carolinians of all races are stuck in low-wage jobs with little opportunity for improvement. Contrast those statistics with the transformational opportunities in the oil and gas industry, where the average annual income is over $100,000.

As the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management prepares its recommendations for Atlantic offshore energy access, we will continue to advocate for South Carolina’s inclusion because it truly is in our state’s and our citizens’ best interest. Based on economic projections released this year, offshore development could create over 34,000 new jobs for South Carolinians, boost our state economy by $2.5 billion, and contribute $445 million annually in tax proceeds to state coffers.

We will continue to foster these conversations with groups of all types and, as we continue this debate, it is my sincere hope that parties on all sides of this issue will be able to engage and advocate without resorting to stoking fear or creating false controversy where none exists.

Stephen Gilchrist is state chairman of Explore Offshore S.C. and chairman of the S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce.

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