How South Carolina Rebels Against Trump’s Offshore Drilling Plan

Deepwater Horizon NOAA

Deepwater Horizon (NOAA)

2018 started with a grand plan to open up the coastlines of the United States to oil drilling. The Interior Department released a plan to approve leases. But cracks emerged almost immediately. We are going to look at how South Carolina has become opposed to Trump’s offshore drilling plans.

Florida was given an exemption under the rationale that Florida’s coasts were key to its economy. Then nearly every state with a coastline asked for a similar exemption. California, the US leader in renewable energy and sustainability, has mobilized to combat any offshore drilling from taking place.

But not every state shares California’s culture nor its politics. So today we look at South Carolina.

South Carolina is a reliably red state. In a recently released Winthrop poll, Donald Trump’s approval ratings are at 42% in South Carolina and he has a 50% disapproval rating. This is better than the US average. But the issue of drilling has transcended politics within the state.


Tourism vs Oil

A Washington Post article gave national exposure to South Carolina’s debate. The article noted the economic arguments made by both sides.

Anti-drilling: South Carolina’s coasts reel in $20 billion a year and supply 600,000 jobs, mostly related to tourism. Opponents to drilling point out that South Carolina has few fossil fuel resources offshore. Therefore, drilling is not worth endangering the tourism industry. There is relatively little reward for a significant risk.

Unsure if tourism would really be impacted? Every state is taking a look at Louisiana’s tourism industry following the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. Tourism revenue dropped nearly $250 million in a single year. Some companies never recovered, resulting in a loss of jobs.

Pro-drilling: The oil industry points out that drilling could bring in $2.7 billion a year and 35,000 jobs. This is the lead talking point pushed forth by the American Petroleum Institute.

Washington Post key quote from Republican and off-shore drilling opponent State Representative Nancy Mace: “I worked for President Trump . . . in several states. I support his agenda. But that doesn’t mean like a blind sheep I will agree with everything. I represent the Charleston area.”

Let’s go over the stakeholders in South Carolina’s drilling debate.



People of South Carolina

In South Carolina, a majority oppose offshore drilling (51%). When looking at the coastal communities, that opposition ticks up to 54%. This is notable mainly because South Carolina is such a Republican state, even in this poll 63% of Republicans favor drilling.

Winthrop SC Poll Results

(Winthrop Poll)

Part of the shift in attitudes could be due to the fact that South Carolinians have faced the prospect of offshore drilling several times over the last five years. As the Sierra Club reported, in 2013, protesters overturned an American Petroleum Institute effort to conduct seismic testing. There was a second public battle when President Obama briefly suggested exploration in the Atlantic. Each time the issue is raised, more people form opinions on it and are more likely to act on their opinions.

In South Carolina, 76% of the population now believes climate change is real. A look at political affiliation shows 57% of Republicans believe in climate change (93% of Dems). The poll does survey details. We can’t tell what portion of the believers also believe that climate change could have severe consequences or that offshore drilling could contribute to it. But wide acceptance of a fact (climate change is real) is a step forward because then South Carolinians can talk about what impact it may have.


Local Businesses

Some local businesses have leveraged their community standing to encourage customers to protest offshore drilling. The Sierra Club ran a piece that cited how local businesses are reacting. Examples of businesses opposing drilling include a dolphin-tourism business, a Civil War boat touring company run by a conservative state legislator, and a research lab studying estuary life.


State Representatives

A public protest gathering was held in front of the Statehouse during the Department of Interior’s “public comment” period. One US Representative attended but was joined by 13 state legislators and 200 citizens. The legislators were both Republicans and Democrats. The rally took place in mid-February, but sparked wider media attention.


Advocacy and Trade Groups

Advocacy and trade groups have been eager to push out press releases and attend media events to shape the narrative in South Carolina. Below are quotes put forth by just some of the organizations jockeying.

Coastal Conservation League: “As it stands, the federal government’s misguided plan imperils our $20 billion tourism economy.”

Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic: “Senator Goldfinch [the lone pro-drilling coastal representative] and the oil and gas officials know that the people of the coast overwhelmingly oppose offshore testing and drilling operations…So they want to do an end run, broaden the field, and run a massive advertising blitz aimed at those who don’t know the situation.”

Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast: “I want to invite Secretary Zinke to visit the coasts of every Atlantic Coast state with their respective governors… He will find that each is unique and generates tourism, commercial fishing and recreation dollars that drive their local and state economies.”


National Ocean Industries Association: “The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act clearly outlines a deliberative, inclusive and lengthy review process before any preliminary leasing proposals are finalized.”

The South Carolina Association of Taxpayers: “[Offshore drilling] really could be transformative for the state, if they do it right…We need to expand our economy and not raise more taxes.”


The Governor

Governor Henry McMaster asked for an exemption from offshore drilling. He is not leading in this fight, but his opposition to offshore drilling is crucial in determining whether South Carolina ultimately blocks drilling or not.

McMaster made the exemption request within a week of the Interior Department’s revelation that they were opening up coastlines across the US – except in Florida. McMaster said, “”We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty, and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline.”

McMaster was a supporter of Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign. He is an outlier among governors petitioning for exemptions because he is a Republican.

McMaster has shown he is actively trying to gain the exemption. He spoke to Trump via phone, the Dept of Interior via phone, and has sent follow up letters.

Governor McMaster is also running for re-election in 2018. He became Governor in January 2017 when Governor Nikki Haley joined the administration. South Carolina will have its primary in June. The Lt. Governor Kevin Bryant, is running but has also pumped the brakes on drilling by requesting that more exploration should be done to determine if drilling is worth it.


State Agencies

Department of Health and Environmental Control has the ability to approve or reject lease proposals. The agency does not have absolute power, which means any decision can be challenged. The Post and Courier notes that lease approval is traditionally predicated on support from on-state government.


Take Action

In-Situ burning of oil

Not great for tourism (Deepwater Horizon/NOAA)

The key levers of change in South Carolina are the same as in California – start local. The key main difference is that California’s politicians reflect a tradition of environmentalism much more than the free market conservatives of South Carolina’s chambers.

1. Call your representative – The 13 state legislators who spoke out against offshore drilling did so because they felt pressure. They faced the media and made their position clear because if they did not do so, the businesses and organizing groups opposing drilling would turn on them. Calling your state representative is one of the most accessible ways to changing state policy.

2. Write to your local newspaper – Take this action to help raise awareness in your community. You don’t need to organize a march. A letter in your local paper will shine a spotlight on the issue of offshore drilling. Maybe you’ll persuade people to share your view, maybe you won’t entirely, but you will encourage people to think about it a little more.

3. Attend upcoming hearings and events – The advocacy groups that helped bring a crowd to the Statehouse in mid-February are the most likely source of alerting you of upcoming efforts. The Coastal Conservation League has a calendar (no upcoming events yet), but they offered rides to the Statehouse during the hearing. You can sign-up for their email list or reach out to them directly on their website.


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