Hamilton Davis

By Hamilton Davis || Offshore drilling seems to be one of those topics about which people have strong emotional reactions but relatively little specific knowledge.  Either they are in the “drill, baby, drill” crowd motivated by the promise of lower gas prices and the lure of energy independence, or they are among the opposition haunted by visions of oil soaked beaches and oil rigs looming on the horizon.  Beyond these first impressions, all nuances tend to get lost in the roiling sea of political rhetoric.

The current proposal from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to allow for exploratory activities related to oil and gas development along the East Coast makes it even more difficult to have an informed debate on this topic.

As proposed, this especially opaque federal process only adds to the confusion by denying state decision makers and the public access to the data that would be gathered from the exploration. Nevertheless, large segments of the public, as well as state and local elected officials apparently support this path forward.

The process will go something like this: BOEM conducts public hearings to gather feedback about potential conflicts and impacts resulting from oil and gas exploration off the coastal states in the Mid and South Atlantic planning areas; mitigation measures will be put in place to address these concerns; private companies will use seismic testing and drill exploratory wells in search of oil and gas deposits; BOEM and the companies involved in the exploration activities will have exclusive access to the data collected; and BOEM will use this data to decide whether leasing areas for oil and gas development along the East Coast is appropriate.

In the end, states like South Carolina will have no way to take an educated position on whether the inherent risks and impacts associated with oil and gas extraction are worth the potential benefits.

What if the new data supports the current statistics associated with oil and gas reserves in the Mid and South Atlantic? Namely, the existing data suggests there is nowhere near enough oil and gas in these offshore areas to have any noticeable impact on either gas prices or foreign oil dependencies. Should we still bet our fisheries, tourism industry, and quality of life against a pittance of oil and gas that will almost exclusively benefit the bottom line of multinational oil corporations like Exxon and BP?

Many people want to just “see what’s out there,” but the current proposal from BOEM means the public won’t see anything until contracts with oil and gas companies are signed and extraction is underway.

Others suggest the revenue from any oil and gas development could help South Carolina, but there is no revenue sharing provision in place for East Coast states. As it stands, the federal government is the sole recipient and beneficiary of existing shared revenue requirements.

Isn’t it logical that even advocates of offshore drilling would want to establish a transparent process for weighing the costs and benefits of these activities, as well as establishing a revenue sharing provision for the state?  Unfortunately, these details seem to get lost as emotions take over and the rush to drill overwhelms common sense.

Writing from the perspective of a conservationist and outdoorsman, I am indeed worried about the impact oil and gas development could have on our marine environment and our coastal communities.  I have seen the onshore and near shore infrastructure that accompanies this industry in the Gulf of Mexico, and the thought of oil refineries and pipelines enveloping our coastline worries me.

Images of the BP Horizon spill and the havoc wreaked by hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the oil industry in the Gulf should still be fresh in our minds, while the lack of any substantive response to these tragedies from Congress surely gives many of us pause.

On the other hand, many people recognize that natural gas development could potentially be done in a more environmentally benign way, and the risks accompanying that industry are significantly less than those associated with oil development.

However, this BOEM process affords no opportunity to have a more nuanced conversation about what is and isn’t appropriate for the waters off the South Carolina coast, and instead of substantive dialogue from those elected to lead us, we get misleading political rhetoric, a confused public, and a federal agenda designed to keep us in the dark.

Offshore drilling advocates and opponents alike should find this unacceptable.

For more information on the BOEM proposal and the public comment period, click here.

Hamilton Davis is energy and climate director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.