Come on in, the water's fine for oil and natural gas drilling, a state Senate bill says. Not that it's likely to make much difference.
The bill would direct the state environmental agency to "expedite" offshore exploration, drilling and production applications after federal restrictions are removed. A Senate panel approved it Wednesday and moved it to the full Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where its future is uncertain.
"It's a long shot," said Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, the panel's chairman. The bill would have to clear the committee within the next week to go to the full Senate this session. Campbell said it's largely a symbolic bill to welcome the offshore business. The bill's sponsors and he want to make sure the state would be in line for any potential revenue from exploration or drilling, he said.
"We're competing with our sister states. The quicker we can respond, the better we can respond, the better position we will be in," he said.
There are a few other snags with the whole thing.
"The bill is superfluous," said Hamilton Davis, program manager for the environmental advocate Coastal Conservation League. "We don't have oil and natural gas reserves (in state- controlled waters) off South Carolina. They might as well include uranium and coal; it would have the same impact on our energy future."
Despite the bill's implied short-cutting of the environmental regulatory process, it has environmentalists so little concerned, they didn't bother to fight it, Davis said.
The state controls ocean waters for three miles off the coast and shares control for another three. Exploration companies plan to focus on the Continental Shelf some 50 to 60 miles out, under federal control. Campbell said he personally didn't think enough oil would be found offshore to be worth drilling, and any natural gas would be found in areas 60 to 70 miles out.
Meanwhile, if a company does apply for a state permit or certification, regulators aren't sure the bill would speed up the process. How quickly an application moves is more a matter of regulators getting all the information they need, said Dan Burger, communications director for the S.C. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.
"We do our best to expedite all applications we receive," he said. Campbell agreed, saying the bill would show interested companies the state's intent to be as efficient and effective as possible.
Experts generally agree that not a whole lot of oil lies off South Carolina. They disagree over how much natural gas might be out there, and whether it can be found in the type of field that can be commercially drilled.
The bill, which languished in the last legislative session, got the panel vote the week before two public hearings will be held in Charleston by the federal Minerals Management Service, part of a series of hearings along the coast to get public comments for an environmental impact statement.
The Obama administration in March lifted a long-standing ban on new offshore drilling, opening up a huge area of East Coast waters and some protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. The S.C. Legislature last year gave the go-ahead for drilling off the coast.
The politically charged issue has South Carolinians divided on whether the potential for new energy reserves and revenue outweighs the risks to an $18 billion tourism industry, fishing and other interests. Seven companies already have applied for permits to explore for oil and natural gas along all or part of the Southeast coast. All of them want to look off South Carolina.