by Sammy Fretwell
COLUMBIA, SC — Boosters of drilling for gas and oil along the South Carolina coast are punching back at a sustained effort by environmental groups to influence public opinion against a proposal that could allow offshore drilling.
As a public comment deadline nears, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and business leaders will hold a forum Wednesday near Charleston to explain why oil and gas would be the right industry for coastal South Carolina.
“As part of the solution to reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy and creating good jobs here at home, we must keep all the options open,” said Tom Marchant of Pawleys Island, chairman of the South Carolina Energy Forum, an association that backs drilling.
Duncan said the forum will “dispel some of the myths being propagated’’ by opponents. He said if oil and gas are found off the coast, it could bring jobs and drilling revenue for South Carolina. Drilling would not occur until after seismic tests determined if substantial deposits exist.
“If there are no resources out there that are recoverable, then this whole thing goes away,’’ said Duncan, one of drilling’s biggest backers. “Why not be open-minded enough to allow some exploration to take place with seismic testing and find out?’’
Duncan’s support for drilling is shared by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. The governor’s office said Tuesday that “offshore energy opportunities’’ mean more jobs for South Carolina. But Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said the state won’t do anything to harm the coast, natural resources or tourism.
Wednesday’s business leaders’ meeting is scheduled for Mount Pleasant at 2 p.m., an hour before the U.S Bureau of Ocean Energy Management holds a public information session in the Charleston suburb about offshore drilling and its environmental impact. The deadline to comment is March 30.
The Mount Pleasant meetings follow the showing of a movie this week by environmentalists about the downside of oil drilling. The film, “The Great Invisible,’’ was shown Monday night in Charleston and Tuesday night in Columbia. The Columbia screening attracted about 50 people.
At issue is the energy agency’s proposal to include the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia in an area that could allow companies to drill for oil and gas. Drilling has been banned for decades along the south Atlantic coast. Environmentalists say oil drilling could pollute beaches, kill dolphins and wreck the state’s coastal tourism industry – a cornerstone of South Carolina’s economy
In recent months, green groups have held forums and news conferences against drilling. City councils in Beaufort, Edisto Beach, Port Royal, Isle of Palms and Folly Beach have come out against offshore drilling. The Folly Beach council took its stance Tuesday night, said Samantha Siegel, who is with the environmental group Oceana.
Last summer, the government approved allowing companies to use seismic testing to search for oil and gas in the south Atlantic Ocean. Companies would have to find the resources before any drilling could occur. Drilling would occur more than 50 miles off shore.
The S.C. Coastal Conservation League, Oceana, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina and the Sierra Club all have voiced loud opposition to the plan in South Carolina.
Environmental groups that brought the documentary to South Carolina theaters this week said the film provides a sobering look at what they said could happen if drill rigs ever were located off the South Carolina coast.
“Watching it was pretty jarring,’’ said Hamilton Davis, energy issues chief for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “People are horrified that this is actually a possibility for the East Coast and the South Carolina coast.’’
Davis said the film drew an overflow crowd Monday night in Charleston. Tuesday night’s panel discussion in Columbia featured opponents of offshore exploration and drilling, including state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston. Davis said the film may also be shown in other locales.
“The Great Invisible’’ is a documentary about events surrounding the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the impact it had on workers, as well as Gulf Coast residents. Since its release nationally late last year, the film has been critically acclaimed. The gulf oil spill is considered the worst of its kind in U.S. history.
“In addition to putting a personal face on the spill, director Margaret Brown’s film serves as a frustrating and smartly assembled look at the profits-above-all attitudes of the oil industry,’’ according to a review in the The (New Orleans) Times Picayune in December.
The Conservation League’s Davis said he hopes the film educates the public. He also said he is not surprised by the business forum scheduled for Wednesday. Politicians who support offshore drilling are being influenced with campaign contributions by the oil and gas industry, Davis said.
Davis said industry “has invested a lot of money in our politicians and in local groups in South Carolina to push their agenda. That’s what we expect them to do.’’