Offshore drilling foes running dry

In this Thursday, July 22, 2010 file picture, a swell partially obscures the Development Driller II, left, and Development Driller III, which are drilling the relief wells, at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Late last month, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling visited Washington, D.C., with a single goal in mind: to prevent development of our state’s valuable coastal energy resources. Keyserling and his allies continue to argue that offshore oil and gas exploration, including so-called “seismic testing,” poses a serious threat to both the environment and the South Carolina economy.

In fact, the safety of both practices has been exhaustively demonstrated, as have the potential economic benefits for South Carolinians. If anything, efforts to develop our coastal energy resources would actually make Americans safer by reducing the national-security threats that arise from foreign-oil dependence.

In opposing these essential oil and gas projects, campaigners like Keyserling are not only disregarding the facts, but the safety and prosperity of South Carolina citizens.

The areas off the coast of South Carolina may hold the key to American energy independence. By some estimates, the entire Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf could provide our country with as much as 1.3 million barrels of oil a day by 2035.

These waters have long been off-limits to energy developers. But that’s about to change. In January, the Obama administration announced a proposal for leasing segments of the OCS, including areas off the South Carolina coast, for the purposes of energy development.

Since then, activists throughout our state have been doing their best to keep South Carolina’s coastal oil and gas resources underwater. Unfortunately for these campaigners, their arguments against offshore energy development are deeply misinformed.

One such argument involves the environmental impact of seismic surveys. This method of exploration uses an air gun to bounce sound waves off of the ocean floor. Sensors on the surface then pick up the reflected sound and use the resulting data to locate potential oil and natural gas reserves.

According to critics, this technique has destructive consequences for marine life. On his recent trip to Washington, in fact, Keyserling singled out seismic testing as “potentially the most damaging” aspect of offshore energy development.

Support for this assertion, however, is hard to come by. As a report from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently noted, “there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical (G&G) seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”

The process is also governed by a myriad of protocols and federal regulations designed to prevent any negative effects that might result from a test. For instance, surveyors take account of the movement patterns of nearby marine life before choosing a testing location. They also take care to begin with low-intensity blasts, slowly increasing the volume in order to give nearby animals a chance to leave.

At the same time, the safety policies surrounding the actual drilling process have never been stricter. And the Obama administration is currently working to finalize a host of new standards for everything from the equipment on offshore drilling sites to how wells are monitored.

Among our state’s elected officials, opponents of offshore drilling often claim to be carrying out the will of South Carolinians. For example, while Rep. Tom Rice supports seismic testing, he condemns offshore drilling by saying: “I’m supposed to represent the people and if they don’t want it, I don’t want it.”

But when it comes to the state as whole, leaders like Rice and Keyserling are championing the minority view. A recent poll found that seven in ten South Carolina voters support offshore drilling.

Claims that offshore drilling would somehow harm the state economy are also out of sync with the facts.

The newfound glut of oil and gas flowing from South Carolina’s shores would be a boon to our economy, generating an estimated 35,000 new jobs by 2035 in industries as wide-ranging as retail, health care, and real estate. But the biggest benefits to developing our state’s energy resources would be felt across the country. By boosting domestic energy production, offshore oil and gas development would help free our country from a dependence on foreign energy that has undermined our national security for decades.

Those who continue to denounce offshore oil and gas development need to reexamine the evidence.

Anyone truly committed to protecting South Carolinians, our lives and our livelihoods should recognize these energy resources as an untapped opportunity that we can’t afford to squander.

William Schachte Jr. of Charleston, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, is South Carolina chairman for Vets4Energy.