How much oil is off S.C. shores? Not much, experts say

July 19, 2008 

Despite a push by some in the South Carolina business community to drill for oil off shore, geologists say such efforts will bring no quick relief at the pump. Those same scientists say the waters off the Palmetto State have little oil to offer.

The Charleston-based Citizens for Sound Conservation began a statewide campaign this week called "Bury the Ban" and is urging Congress to allow the ban on offshore drilling, in place since 1981, to expire. The ban will do so Sept. 30 unless Congress renews it.

The Charleston group -- with members from the manufacturing, home building, real estate, utility, maritime and port industries -- says lifting the ban would free the country to pursue energy independence by tapping oil and natural gas resources that are currently untouched.

"With today's technology it can be done in a sound and responsible way off our coast," said group spokesman Denver Merrill. "We are the only industrial country in the world that is not tapping into our own resources. Let's lift this ban, start looking and see what happens."

Some environmental groups, however, say lifting the ban won't bring relief from high gasoline prices for at least a decade. They also cite the threat to millions of acres of the Outer Continental Shelf they say the ban protected.

"So really what we've got is big oil (companies) and the politicians in Washington and Columbia telling the American people, 'Because your gas prices are high, we need to drill,' " said Hamilton Davis, a program director for the Coastal Conservation League. "They know full well it won't impact (gas) prices."

Congress has 74 days to decide if it will lift the ban.

HOW IT WOULD WORK

Currently, drilling is allowed off the coast of Alaska, in the Gulf of Mexico and in some areas off the Pacific coast.

Oil and gas leases there are overseen by the federal Minerals Management Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Though leases have historically been held in the Atlantic Ocean, none have been active since 2000. The Atlantic shelf is divided into four regions. The Palmetto State is part of the South Atlantic region,

consisting of 54 million acres.

If Congress lifts the ban, the federal agency would first conduct environmental assessments. The leasing process would then begin for those interested in oil or gas exploration, said agency spokeswoman Eileen Angelico.

OFFSHORE OBSTACLES

Even if all that happens, the results are likely to be disappointing.

"We just don't have the great kind of geology and ... shallow enough water," said Cassandra Runyon, a geologist at the

College of Charleston.

Oil companies would have to travel 60 miles from land to reach the Outer Continental Shelf. Even that far out, she said, conditions weren't right to form oil in the first place.

"It was active several million years ago but it didn't have the right geologic conditions like the Gulf shore did where ... conditions were just right for the peat and everything to convert itself to the carbons and eventually to the oil," Runyon said.

Oil explorers would face another obstacle that far out.

Sixty miles offshore is a unique coastal reef system that Gov. Mark Sanford recently sought federal protection for by having the president name it a national marine monument. That would prohibit drilling there.

The White House has not yet responded to Sanford's request.

Bush favors offshore drilling. On Monday, he rescinded the executive ban on drilling that his father established as president in 1990.

The current chief executive is now asking Congress to follow suit, saying offshore drilling would ease pressure on oil prices by increasing domestic production.

Environmentalists aren't so sure. They worry about the effects the drilling could have on the state's beaches.

"Rigs might be 50 miles offshore, but everything that comes out of them (would be) pumped to an onshore facility for processing, storage or transportation," the league's Davis said. "We are talking about transforming our coastline into New Jersey or Southern California ... And, what happens during a hurricane that sweeps up the seaboard?"

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