Protecting South Carolina’s coast from offshore drilling and seismic testing is a paramount concern for our environment, economy and quality of life. So we should all celebrate the U.S. House vote Wednesday to permanently put those safeguards in place for the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
A special thanks goes to 1st District Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., who authored the offshore drilling bill that took on expanded protections via amendments. It is an outstanding accomplishment for a freshman legislator.
Unfortunately, the victory represents only part of the battle, which now moves to the Senate. Given the sparse Republican support for the bill, it faces an extremely difficult path in the upper chamber. We urge our two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, to persuade their colleagues to support this critical legislation.
Most elected politicians of both parties from the 14 Atlantic Coast states from Florida to Maine already support such a ban to protect the coastal environment and revenues and jobs in tourism and fisheries.
As Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, said in congratulating Rep. Cunningham, the estimated damage from the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010 to Gulf of Mexico fisheries alone from Florida to Texas was the loss of 22,000 jobs and $8.7 billion in income. He said that since then there have been 434 more well blowouts of at least 2,000 barrels. Obviously, the danger of a blowout is constant.
But a small number of politicians from the region still support offshore drilling, which was proposed by the Trump administration. During the House debate Wednesday, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said, “This legislation overly restricts offshore exploration and development which would eliminate opportunities to create jobs, grow the economy and increase U.S. energy development to lower prices for consumers.”
Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., whose district includes the tourism-rich Grand Strand, said he still opposes offshore drilling and seismic testing but also voted against Cunningham’s measure, calling it “extreme and flawed.”
Gov. Henry McMaster is an ally of President Donald Trump but also supports the ban. None of South Carolina’s five GOP congressmen voted for the bill. It is disappointing that our representatives could not find a way to unite behind this crucial firewall against the potential destruction of South Carolina’s coast.
More broadly, Republican legislators said the Cunningham bill would undermine national security by impeding national energy independence. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, lost a vote on an amendment that would have changed the title of the bill from the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act to the inane Russian Energy Reliance and U.S. Poverty Act.
The national security argument is losing force and can be largely dismissed. As the bill’s sponsors pointed out, the United States is on the verge of being a net energy exporter and is steadily expanding carbon-free energy resources such as wind and solar.
In the Senate, Rep. Cunningham’s bill ought to be able to count on the Senate’s 47 Democrats. There are nine Republican senators from Atlantic Coast states. If all of them follow the overwhelming public support for a ban among coastal residents, supporters would still fall four votes short of the supermajority of 60 votes likely to be required. That means Sens. Graham and Scott and their Republican colleagues from the Atlantic Coast have some serious work to do to help round up enough of their colleagues to pass the bill.
If Senate action fails, the states will be left to their own resources to defend themselves against offshore drilling. A number of states, including New York, New Hampshire, Florida and California, have already banned oil exploration within the 3-mile limit of their blue-water jurisdiction.
But that leaves 197 miles of offshore ocean under federal jurisdiction, making the states’ action more symbolic than effective.
The S.C. Legislature included in this year’s state budget a one-year ban on onshore infrastructure to support offshore oil and gas development, and several other states have permanent bans. But even if all the Atlantic Coast states agreed on such steps, offshore oil wells still could be developed and ship their product to more friendly ports.
Far-offshore wells like Deepwater Horizon are more prone to failure because of the difficulty of drilling at great depth. The only way to avoid the potentially catastrophic damage from another such accident is to ban offshore drilling completely. That’s what Rep. Cunningham’s bill rightly would do. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to put those protections in place.