President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday an oil drilling moratorium off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, a reversal after stripping a drilling ban put in place by his predecessor.
Trump signed an order in an afternoon event that he said would lengthen a drilling moratorium on the west coast of Florida and expand it to the Atlantic coasts of all three states. The text of the order says that it takes effect on July 1, 2022, and applies for the following 10 years, but it's unclear what that means in South Carolina before that date.
Like all presidential orders, it could be changed under a new president.
"This protects your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come," the president said at the event, adding that the country had found a way to produce enough energy by other means, including hydraulic fracking for natural gas.
Environmental advocates, however, are not taking Trump's announcement at face value.
"We'll be looking for specific actions, in court or in federal agencies, to show that this is more than words," said Alan Hancock of the Coastal Conservation League.
Trump made his announcement in Florida, a battleground state for the presidential election where public opinion is staunchly against drilling. Floridians passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 banning rigs in state waters. An existing federal moratorium along its Gulf Coast was set to expire in 2022, and Trump expanded that prohibition with his Tuesday action.
In South Carolina, 56 percent of the state opposes offshore drilling, according to a 2019 Winthrop University poll. Much of that opposition is focused at the coast, where businesses depend on natural beauty to bring tourists, and the memory of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico looms large.
"We're thrilled because we won," said Peg Howell of Grand Strand-based Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. "It was a shock."
However, Howell wondered what it could mean for nearby North Carolina, which was mentioned briefly by Trump but not included in his order. She said past studies have shown the area off that state's coast was the most likely to have resources worth extracting.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and Republican Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham all hailed the move by Trump, with Graham saying in a statement he had "worked extensively" with the president on the issue. Trump mentioned Graham among several Republican politicians in his remarks, saying the senator "liked the idea from the very beginning."
"I’m glad to see the Administration listen to the will of the people," Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., said in a statement. "But make no mistake, as quickly as the president changed his mind on offshore drilling two months before an election, he could change his mind right back the day after the election."
Cunningham authored his own bill to permanently ban drilling in the Atlantic, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year. The Senate has not considered it.
Just a few years ago, the South Atlantic was already removed from oil development. Former President Barack Obama moved to bar drilling in many Atlantic and Arctic federal waters at the end of his term, but the Trump administration, before Tuesday, had moved in the opposite direction — opening up virtually all of the country's coastline to oil development with a draft plan released at the beginning of 2018.
Trump's order also bans oil exploration. Six companies with seven total applications have sought to search for oil off South Carolina's coast. Five of those applications, pending before the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, could have been approved any day.
Because the order, as written, does not take effect for the next two years, it's unclear if those companies will still pursue exploration in the meantime. A spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, an industry group, said the order would block policymakers from receiving needed data from seismic tests.
"The IAGC is disappointed in the action taken today by this administration as it threatens the commercial viability for near-term exploration in the South Atlantic planning area and continues an arbitrary ban in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico," said Nikki Martin, IAGC president.
Seismic testing involved blasting an air gun at the ocean floor to map it and potentially reveal reserves of oil or natural gas underneath. The seismic blasts have been shown to hurt large mammals such as whales, but as recently as June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the search for oil outweighed negative impacts to sea life.
Several pending lawsuits in Charleston oppose the blasting.