Oil exploration off S.C. coast looking more likely

Image by flickr user Michael (mx5tx)Image by 20080708oilrigs.jpg Whether they OK oil drilling off our coast or not, it's pretty unlikely anyone would let it get close enough to show up in tourists' photos, like this shot in Galveston, Texas. But you'd think the same thing about a port.

With gas averaging more than $4 a gallon, there's been much talk in recent weeks about offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.

The political balance

Before we have oil rigs anywhere near us, there'd need to be OKs (at the very least) at the federal and state levels.

Our U.S. Rep. Henry Brown and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham have been, and remain, avid supporters of offshore drilling.

The Charleston Regional Business Journal reports:
“We’ve been leading the charge on this for years and years,” said Brown’s chief of staff, Chris Berardini. “The congressman has always stood his ground and thought it was the right thing to do for coastal communities.”

In the past, Graham has supported only natural gas exploration, which is considered a less risky venture because there is no potential for an oil spill. But with no end in sight for higher gas prices, spokesman Kevin Bishop said the senator thinks oil exploration is necessary to lessen the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

“It’s hitting South Carolina in the pocketbook,” Bishop said. “In a state like rural South Carolina, there is limited transportation available and, at $4 a gallon, gas is a difficult burden to bear for many people.”

But not everyone in our state agrees with that stance: Gov. Mark Sanford has been a stalwart opponent of offshore drilling, at least in South Carolina's case, Myrtle Beach's News Channel 15 reports:
Responding to a question Sanford was asked about offshore drilling during the October 2006 debate, Sanford said, "It takes but one oil spill, I think, to impact in essence what amounts to be the anchor tenant for attraction to tourists for this part of South Carolina." (Sanford Press Secretary Joel) Sawyer says Sanford still agrees with that assessment.

And it's also entirely possible that, if a federal ban is lifted, a state ban could be imposed.

Tipping the scales

So if the politics behind oil rigs off S.C.'s coast are mixed, what's keeping those politics mixed? First up is the ban on offshore drilling.

But if John McCain gets elected this fall, a supporter of drilling be in office. The Republican candidate has shown more willingness to allow offshore drilling than Democrat Barack Obama. But beyond that, Sanford could also be swept out of our governor's office and into the White House. That quite possibly could leave his seat open for a more willing individual.

And there's also the matter of financial incentive. Decades-old surveying pegs oil reserves for the entire off-limits section of the Atlantic coast at some 3 billion barrels of oil. If those surveys are updated, reserves could be seen as much larger. (Especially as newer technology and methods are better at finding the substance.) And the larger the pile of black gold, the harder it will be to resist.

Also, remember that oil rigs will likely mean S.C. jobs somewhere along the line. It's an especially important variable if our economy becomes depressed.

But what about the environment? And the tourists?

No one wants to trade tourist dollars for oil dollars.

The Charleston Regional Business Journal continues:
“I’m not sure that folks in South Carolina want a refinery on their coastline,” said Ben Moore, climate and energy program director for the Coastal Conservation League. “No doubt that will create a few jobs. The alternative would be to focus on making our transportation infrastructure more efficient instead of the government throwing a bone to the big oil companies. A green jobs economy could produce tens of thousands of jobs. Employment numbers probably are comparable.”

Offshore oil exploration is a lot less risky than it was in the 1940s, when the first drills burrowed into the Gulf of Mexico, but S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford and many others are concerned that it’s not safe enough to put the state’s tourism industry at risk.


The 2005 hurricane season offers the best example of how safe offshore drilling has gotten, the (National Ocean Industries Association) said. Platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were tossed around by several major hurricanes, including Katrina and Rita, which devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts.

“It’s gotten incredibly safer,” (NOIA external affairs director Michael) Kearns said. “Despite being hammered by those two storms in 2005, not one single spill came from offshore.”

Yes, oil is dirty and neither we (nor tourists) would like an oil refinery around. But you could say the same thing about building a busy, polluting port or, even worse, a trash incinerator. And we have those, right in the middle of town.

It's a matter of timing

To develop offshore oil resources would take many years, and if alternative energy resources gain significant momentum before then, it's possible drilling plans could be called off.

In summary: Oil drilling here has many hurdles

How to sum it up? Momentum is building for offshore drilling. So it's entirely probable that laws could be flexed to allow companies to begin exploring what's out there. Assuming oil conditions don't change and depending on how big estimates of oil are, we could see natural gas drilling, perhaps some oil drilling. But it seems pretty unlikely we'll see oil rigs within 50 miles of the coast in the coming decades. What profit there might be in drilling our region's likely modest oil reserves could heavily damage our tourist destination reputation.

Of course, if oil continues to skyrocket and alternative energy doesn't show promising gains, all bets are off. And that fear is why we're seeing more momentum for exploratory drilling now: fear of the future.

Update July 10: The chances off oil rigs off South Carolina's coast just inched up, our state's Republican Party chair became the first state chair to endorse the “Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less.” campaign. Read more.