South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

The battle to prevent offshore oil drilling in South Carolina is not over
October 7th, 2020

By Frank Knapp Jr., The Myrtle Beach Sun News

There will be no seismic airgun blasting — the destructive offshore oil exploration process — in the Atlantic.

For now.

A federal judge has ruled on a lawsuit brought by the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and 16 of our state’s coastal municipalities.

The lawsuit was filed by the SC Environmental Law Project, and it challenged the legality of Incidental Harassment Authorization permits issued by President Donald Trump’s administration.

These permits are necessary to get final authorization to begin oil exploration in the Atlantic.

The judge ruled that the case was moot because the Incidental Harassment Authorization permits are expiring at the end of November and cannot be extended. While the ruling was not based on the merits of our case, one of our legal strategies — to run out the clock on the Incidental Harassment Authorization permits — has succeeded.

But while we have won this battle, we have still not won the war to protect our coast.

That war will not be won until there is a permanent ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic, and thus no need for the exploration.

IT COULD STILL HAPPEN Yes, President Trump recently issued an Executive Order for a 10-year moratorium, starting in 2022, on offshore oil drilling in much of the Atlantic.

But if Trump wins re-election in November, his motivation for issuing the moratorium — which is to make an election-year appeal to voters — will no longer exist.

There will be nothing to stop the president from reversing his Executive Order and instructing his agencies to move forward with his long-term goal, which is to open up the Atlantic for oil drilling.

The seismic permits will be refiled, the Atlantic will be put in the 2022 oil leasing plan and with four more years in office, Trump will eventually succeed in opening it up for drilling.

PERMANENT BAN NEEDED We would not be in this position if we had a permanent ban on offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic.

And we could have had one this year.

A bill sponsored by South Carolina Congressman Joe Cunningham to ban offshore drilling passed the U.S. House, but it still languishes in the Senate.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, does not support the bill — nor will Graham say that he personally opposes offshore drilling in the Atlantic.

Instead Graham’s position is one of states’ rights.

“I want to make sure that the states can opt out or opt in (on offshore oil drilling),” Graham said. “But we’re not going to impose our will at the federal level on South Carolina.”

Meanwhile, South Carolina Congressman Tom Rice (who represents much of South Carolina’s coast) and state Rep. Nancy Mace (who is running against Cunningham) say they are against drilling only off South Carolina’s coast.

However, when it comes to the other East Coast states and offshore drilling, Rice and Mace echo Graham’s position and say that each state should have the right to make its own decision.

THE WAR GOES ON Setting aside the fact that an oil spill or leak anywhere in the Atlantic does not abide by state boundaries — and thus could devastate our state’s tourism industry — this “states’ rights” position appears only to be held when it is convenient.

The fact is states will not have a say in Trump’s temporary moratorium; there is no “opt out or opt in.”

Yet Graham, Rice and Mace quickly abandoned their states’ rights position and embraced Trump’s federal mandate. And now the judge’s ruling on seismic exploration gives these candidates more cover for their refusal to support a ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic to permanently protect our coast.

Today’s battle has been won.

But until Congress passes a permanent ban and a new president signs the bill, the war goes on.

Frank Knapp is CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

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