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Joe Cunningham files bill to permanently ban offshore drilling, seismic testing

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U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, on Thursday introduced a bill seeking to ban offshore drilling and seismic testing in the Atlantic and Pacific. His opposition to the practice was a centerpiece issue in his congressional campaign. File/Bo Petersen/Staff

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham on Thursday introduced a bill banning offshore drilling and seismic testing on the Atlantic and Pacific U.S. coasts, making it the most significant legislative attempt yet by the Charleston Democrat to keep the practices away from South Carolina's beaches.

Named the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act, the legislation calls for a permanent and complete ban on offshore drilling and seismic testing in both regions. 

"It feels great to be able to look people in the eye back in the 1st District and say I kept promises," Cunningham said.

"Unfortunately, that’s a rarity in politics these days, but we ran on a set of limited issues, and I didn't over-promise on things that I didn’t think I could deliver on."

Earlier this year, in the midst of the partial federal government shutdown, the freshman lawmaker filed a bill that called for a decade-long ban on offshore drilling. It's in subcommittee.

The bill was an echo of legislation filed in 2017 by his predecessor, former Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford. Sanford's original bill, which was called The Coastal Economies Protection Act, never made it out of committee.

With a new Democratic-majority in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2018 midterm elections, Cunningham said it was important to try the bill again.

"We wanted to get that back in the cooker," Cunningham said of his 2019 nod to Sanford's earlier bill. "And then also follow it up later on to make sure drilling never happens off our coastline."

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Cunningham said an outright ban was always the end goal.

A recent poll by Winthrop University found a majority of South Carolinians — 56 percent — oppose oil drilling off the state's coast. Meanwhile, the same survey of approximately 1,000 state residents also found 61 percent of respondents oppose seismic blast testing for oil and gas off the coast of South Carolina. 

Though the poll found a partisan split on the issue, with 76 percent opposing offshore drilling compared to 47 percent of Republicans, Cunningham's bill is expected to have bipartisan support from Republicans, including Florida U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney.

"It's appropriate that Joe Cunningham is the main sponsor of this bill because he’s vigorously carried his anti-drilling campaign promises from the Lowcountry to Congress," said Nat Mund, the Southern Environmental Law Center's director of legislative affairs.

"But what is really telling are the other names on the bill, including Republican Francis Rooney of Florida," Mund said. "That speaks volumes about the bi-partisan support to fight this reckless threat to our coast."

Additionally, Cunningham said he has met with South Carolina's U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott. 

"Both of them realize that it's the will of South Carolinians not to have offshore drilling. That is not in dispute. Good senators will obey or respect the wishes of South Carolinians, and I would expect them to make the right call once this bill gets over to the Senate," Cunningham said.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.