The Trump administration announced new plans Thursday to allow offshore oil and gas drilling in all federal waters, including the Atlantic Coast and South Carolina region, where elected officials across political aisles oppose oil and gas exploration and development.
The proposed plan is to allow 47 lease sales, including three in the South Atlantic region that includes South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
But the proposal won’t materialize overnight. It’s the first step in a multi-year process to develop an outer-continental shelf drilling program through 2024.
Public hearings are expected to begin later in January on the proposal.
Just because an area is proposed, does not mean it will be drilled, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement.
“Today's announcement lays out the options that are on the table and starts a lengthy and robust public comment period,” Zinke said.
“Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks. The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance,” Zinke said.
Energy exploration and development off the South Carolina coast is widely opposed by environmental groups and local elected officials, who fear that one spill could cripple the state’s tourism economy.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster opposes offshore drilling. Local elected officials, including the Horry County Council and Myrtle Beach City Council have also passed resolutions urging the federal government to block drilling.
After learning of the administration’s decision, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said he personally objects to drilling and seismic testing.
“I’m disappointed that the administration is going against the wishes of every coastal state, city and county,” Lazarus said.
“One mishap would be devastating to our tourist economy and fisheries here in Horry County and the State of South Carolina,” Lazarus said.
Newly elected Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune has openly opposed off-shore drilling in interviews with The Sun News, and her opinion has not changed.
“I’m against off-shore drilling and seismic testing just because of the impact that it can have on our sea life as well as on our tourism if there were to be a major catastrophe,” Bethune said.
“Similar to what the Gulf experienced when there was a major oil spill, it impacted their tourism greatly and we can’t afford for that to happen. Tourism is our number one industry and I think that we need to do everything that we can to, most importantly, to protect our ocean, protect our ocean life, protect our beach. But also to protect our visitors,” she said.
The administration’s plan is to open up 90 percent of all outer continental shelf drilling areas to development, including arctic areas. Currently, 94 percent of those acres are off limits to exploration.
Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, says maintaining the country’s energy independence is a priority, but so is protecting the coastal environment and the tourism industry.
“The proposal by the Trump administration is not a surprise, but it’s early in the process, affording coastal interests adequate opportunity to influence the final outcome,” Dean said.
Eddy Moore, energy and climate program director for the Coastal Conservation League, noted the strong opposition from Myrtle Beach and said the coast is not for sale.
“South Carolinians have successfully fought prior government efforts to give away our shores to the oil industry, and we will do it again,” said Moore, whose group is circulating a petition opposing the effort.
“We know that the risks of drilling are just too great,” Moore said.
The only public hearing scheduled for South Carolina is in Columbia on Feb. 13 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Doubletree Hilton at 2100 Bush River Road.
Trump administration officials say public input will be a critical part of the process, and are urging industry groups, elected officials, government agencies and concerned citizens to submit comments.
The proposal will be published in the Federal Register on Friday. Public comments will be accepted for 60 days afterward.
People can also submit public comments on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management website.
Megan Tomasic contributed to this report.