U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham revealed his plan Monday to open South Carolina’s coast to offshore oil and natural gas drilling — and have the state share in any profits from strikes of fossil fuels.
Graham, R-S.C., said at a news conference in Columbia’s Five Points he has introduced a bill giving South Carolina the option to allow for oil and gas exploration from 10 to 50 miles offshore. No drilling would be allowed within 10 miles of the coast.
Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., endorsed his proposal, but the plan drew plenty of criticism Monday from environmentalists, a small business group and a coastal geologist.
Environmentalists called the plan an election year stunt in a state with little offshore oil and hard-to-extract natural gas deposits. Critics said Graham’s plan would unnecessarily threaten the environment, and the state’s multibillion-dollar coastal tourism industry, in the search for small quantities of the fossil fuels. A small band of protesters waved signs outside the news conference before heavy rains sent them indoors.
Conservationists say oil spills could hurt resorts, such as Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island. They also say exploration could kill thousands of whales and dolphins.
But Graham — who in the past opposed offshore oil drilling — said looking for oil and gas is worth a try to gain energy independence from hostile nations. He said his plan would be sensitive to the environment, although Graham acknowledged that drilling has risks.
“I can’t promise America that we can get out of this mess without ... taking some risks,’’ Graham said. “The risk we’re trying to avoid is perpetual energy dependence.”
If federal policies change for oil and gas exploration, “we could become more (energy) independent literally in a matter of years,’’ he said.
The governor and the S.C. Legislature would determine whether exploration for oil and gas could occur within the 10-to-50-mile area, as well as where it would occur. He introduced legislation later Monday in the U.S. Senate.
Monday’s announcement occurred at the same time big business groups released a report showing offshore drilling could create thousands of jobs and annually produce $87.5 million from sales, income and royalty taxes. The 18-page report was produced by Miley and Associates for the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, S.C. Citizens for Sound Conservation and the S.C. Energy Forum, a group with ties to the American Petroleum Institute.
The Graham bill would allow South Carolina to keep 37.5 percent of revenues from oil and gas that is found off the coast. Another 50 percent would go to reduce the federal debt and 12.5 percent would go to a federal fund that protects land for conservation, according to Graham’s plan.
Duncan said he plans to introduce similar legislation in the U.S. House.
The state of Virginia already has such a plan, but that was halted by the Obama administration after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Critics said Graham’s plan focuses on the use of dwindling fossil fuels, when the nation needs to look more aggressively at alternative energy sources, including non-polluting wind and solar power.
“We’re not trying anything but fossil fuels in this state,” state Sierra Club representative Susan Corbett said. “There has been virtually no investment in any alternative energy or energy efficiency that are the true home-grown, independent sources of energy.”
Mitchell Colgan, a College of Charleston geologist, and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League’s Hamilton Davis said the legislation seems politically motivated. Exploration off the coast in the 1970s and 1980s revealed little oil. The amount of oil that could be squeezed from the ocean would be a tiny percentage of what states like Alaska and Texas produce, Colgan said.
Natural gas that does exist is in a form that is hard to extract, he said.
“The only people clamoring for offshore drilling in South Carolina are the politicians,’’ said Colgan, who formerly worked for the Shell oil company. “You don’t see Shell or Exxon or the other major oil companies interested in what we have offshore. For South Carolina to talk drilling for oil, it’s political and not scientific.’’
Officials with the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce also voiced reservations. But Graham, who said he also backs alternate energy development, said his idea only makes sense.
He blamed President Barack Obama for failing to move aggressively to pursue offshore oil and gas reserves. He said the oil and gas industry could provide thousands of jobs, more than the Boeing aircraft plant in North Charleston and the BMW car manufacturer in the Greenville area.
“Off the coast of South Carolina, we have oil and gas deposits ... that will allow this nation to become more energy independent, that would create more jobs in South Carolina than Boeing and BMW combined, and would because of the nature of the legislation create a revenue stream for the state of South Carolina.”
Those backing the Graham plan include representatives of some of the state’s biggest business organizations, including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. An estimated 150 people attended a luncheon at Saluda’s restaurant to discuss the plan after Graham’s news conference.
The Associated Press contributed.