MOUNT PLEASANT — South Carolina's new Democratic congressman on Tuesday unveiled his plans for keeping offshore drilling and seismic testing blasts away from the state's coastline with a bill that would ban such action for 10 years.
With Shem Creek's quiet waters and bobbing shrimping boats behind him, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham at a press conference called on the Trump administration to reverse course on its decision to open nearly all U.S. coastal areas for offshore oil and gas exploration.
So far, Florida is the only state granted an exemption.
"I demand that this administration respect the wishes of the coastal communities that I represent, who have been so vocally opposed to unwanted offshore drilling and reprehensible seismic air-gun blasting," Cunningham said.
Cunningham pledged to file The Coastal Economies Protection Act as soon as he got back to Washington, D.C., Tuesday afternoon.
The bill's unveiling comes amidst an ongoing partial federal shutdown, which is now the second-longest in history. Cunningham said he's optimistic his fellow lawmakers can both get the government fully funded and simultaneously pursue passing his bill.
"Congress, like the rest of the country, should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can multitask," he said.
Despite voting against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Cunningham said his bill has the support of Democratic leadership.
Cunningham, who made his opposition to offshore drilling a key part of his campaign, said after the press conference he planned to reach out to Republican senators to build a coalition of support to make sure it passes in both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate.
Cunningham noted the bill has the blessing of his predecessor, former GOP congressman Mark Sanford. Sanford filed a similar bill under the same name in 2017 but the legislation never made it out of committee.
It also has the bipartisan support of state and local leaders, too. State Reps. Peter McCoy and Leon Stavrinakis, both of Charleston, stood next to each other, behind Cunningham during the press conference.
Both McCoy, a Republican, and Stavrinakis, a Democrat, were due in Columbia for the start of this year's legislative session, but both said it was important to be at the press conference scheduled 2½ hours before the session was set to begin.
"The South Carolina Legislature is taking this issue up, too," McCoy said following the press conference. "This issue is way too important. We want Joe to know we're behind him on this issue. We're going to fight on the local level while he's fighting for us in D.C."
State Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, was already in Columbia at the time of the press conference, but said by phone the issue is paramount for conservation efforts, but also gets to the heart of federalism and states' rights.
"It's not good when the federal government comes in and tells states what to do," she said, noting bills will be filed in the state House this session opposing offshore drilling on South Carolina's coast.
So far, the anti-offshore drilling momentum appears to be growing in the Palmetto State. On Monday, state Attorney General Alan Wilson announced he would join a lawsuit filed last month to try and block President Donald Trump from opening up the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas exploration.
Wilson's announcement Monday came about a month after nine conservation groups and 16 South Carolina coastal communities sued in federal court in Charleston to stop seismic testing off the East Coast.
The move makes Wilson the first Republican attorney general to join the effort, adding to nine other Democratic attorneys general who joined the lawsuit last month.
The 16 municipalities are Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Folly Beach, Edisto Island, Seabrook Island, Kiawah Island, James Island, Beaufort, Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Port Royal, Awendaw, Pawleys Island, Briarcliffe Acres and North Myrtle Beach. Also part of the litigation is the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
Other groups pursuing the lawsuit include South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, North Carolina Coastal Federation, One Hundred Miles and Defenders of Wildlife, Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Surfrider Foundation, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.