Opponents of offshore seismic testing holding hands on shore (copy) (copy)

People show support for alternative energy and against offshore oil drilling and its threat to our beaches in the annual Hands Across the Sand event. File/David Quick/Staff

S.C. senators made a strong statement in support of the environment this month, with their votes to make it difficult for companies to start oil exploration projects off our coast and to allow local governments to keep approving and enforcing bans on plastic bags.

Both votes were encouraging for our entire state but particularly for the coast, where President Donald Trump’s plan to allow seismic testing (now on hold but not abandoned) threatens marine creatures and tourism, and where local efforts to protect wildlife from flimsy grocery store plastic bags are under attack from the packaging industry.

Although we don’t know where the House stands, the Senate’s overwhelming 40-4 vote to prohibit state agencies and local governments from permitting any  facilities for use in oil exploration or drilling at the least signals that the Legislature won’t be passing the House bill to prohibit state agencies and local governments from doing anything to “deter, prohibit, or otherwise impede” oil and gas exploration and drilling. 

And the plastic bags vote strongly suggests that the Legislature will not be able to roll back anti-plastic ordinances in Charleston and Beaufort counties and several coastal communities, or to prohibit more communities from enacting them.

That’s excellent news for all the marine creatures that would be endangered by seismic testing and that already face a slow and painful death by starvation as a result of accidentally ingesting plastic bags. It’s good news as well for our $23 billion-a-year tourism industry, which would be endangered by oil spills and certainly isn’t helped by the unsightly litter that plastic bags contribute to.

But the way the Senate chose to go about all this is less than ideal.

Oh, it was absolutely right for the Senate to refuse (by a strong 27-15 vote) to add the ban on plastic bag bans to the state budget, not just because it’s a bad idea but also because policy issues such as this don’t need to be added to the state budget. But while the exploration provision is for several technical reasons far less disturbing, it remains a matter that ought to be considered in a stand-alone bill.

We realize this sounds pretty wonky — particularly since neither the approved nor the rejected budget proviso crosses the red line that marks irresponsible lawmaking and violates the state constitution. But taking a bill that legislators want to pass as a stand-alone law and inserting it into the budget short-circuits a process that is designed to prevent the Legislature from accidentally making irresponsible or little-known decisions, or passing laws without sufficient public input.

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Budget provisos are supposed to tell state agencies how to spend the money they are allocated in the budget, and from a technical standpoint, the drilling proviso is flawless: It says DHEC can’t use any state funding to “approve a plan, permit, license application or other authorization” for any pipelines, tanks or other infrastructure that might be needed by drilling companies.

But the spending language is pretext to create a very smart policy that has little to do with how DHEC spends state funds and a lot to do with what we allow businesses to do to our coast. It really needs to be passed as a separate law, and not just because this proviso lasts for only a year.

Whether the House goes along with the proviso or not, the Senate should pass a separate bill banning exploration and drilling off our coast — which should be easy to do, given the near-unanimous support of the proviso. And then the House needs to approve that. We need to protect our coast, but we need to do it permanently, not just for one year.