By Gregg Bragg, Senior Staff Writer for Island Connection
The clock is already ticking for those wishing to send comments on offshore drilling to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Monday, Jan. 8 opened phase 2 of the process with an obligatory 60 day period, which will allow people to voice their opinions on drilling for the second time in as many years. Concerned residents can register their thoughts on the matter by visiting Regulations.gov/document?D=BOEM-2017-0074-0001, until March 9, and clicking the blue COMMENT NOW button. If this is beginning to sound a bit like the movie Groundhog Day, you’d be right.
The Obama Administration floated the concept of allowing oil exploration in the Atlantic early in 2015 to the surprise of many. Reaction from the South Carolina Environmental Law Project was immediate. SCELP, with help from grass roots organizations like Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA), mobilized with the goal of convincing every town council along the East coast to officially reject the idea.
There were some divided votes (Kiawah’s Weaver and Wilson voted “No,” for example), but the overall response was unanimous from 26 SC coastal communities. The proposal was withdrawn in 2016, and was followed by BOEM’s disapproval of accompanying requests to conduct seismic testing being delivered on Jan. 7, 2017. No one was surprised when the newly elected administration breathed new life into the zombie issue a few weeks after taking office.
Opponents of drilling were ready for phase 1 of the process. Seabrook, Isle of Palms, and Folly Beach joined 22 additional coastal communities last spring in a tsunami of participation determined to protect their residents from both drilling and seismic testing. “BOEM tallied 816,000 comments in response. Comments were received from a diverse set of stakeholders, including elected officials, government agencies, industry, public interest groups, and private citizens,” Tracey Blythe Moriarty, Acting Deputy Chief, Office of Public Affairs (BOEM) told this reporter.
“BOEM expects to publish a Draft Proposed Program (DPP) [e.g. the current phase 2] for public comment later this year . The DPP is the first of three proposals to be issued prior to the establishment of the next National Program. Following public comment and review periods for the DPP, BOEM will develop the second proposal, the Proposed Program, as well as an accompanying Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Following public comment on the Proposed Program [phase 3] and Draft EIS, the Proposed Final Program, the last of three proposals, and a Final EIS will be developed and submitted to the President and Congress for a 60-day waiting period, after which the Secretary can approve the final National Program,” added Moriarty.
Moriarty further insisted public participation was critical to the process and can make a difference. “YES, public input does make a difference. Public input is an integral part of the national oil and gas leasing program development process. Section 18 of the OCS Lands Act specifies a multi-step process of consultation and analysis that must be completed before the Secretary [of the Interior] may approve a new National OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program based on 8 factors:
Geographic, Geological, and Ecological Characteristics
Equitable Sharing of Developmental Benefits and Environmental Risks
Location with Respect to Regional and National Energy Markets and Needs
Location with Respect to Other Uses of the Sea and Seabed
Interest of Potential Oil and Gas Producers
Laws, Goals, and Policies of Affected States
Environmental Sensitivity and Marine Productivity
Environmental and Predictive Information”
This time, however, resident involvement did not make a difference and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke decided to move the DPP forward. It includes the Gulf of Mexico, the Acrtic, and most of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts with the exception of Florida, #notsomuch.
Mere days after announcing the DPP would move forward, Zinke exempted Florida from the plan and was immediately castigated. ‘“The Administrative Procedure Act requires there to be a reasonable rationale behind agency decisions, and that they can’t be arbitrary and capricious,” said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, referring to a 1946 law governing major regulatory changes. “So, saying Florida is exempt because Rick Scott is straightforward and trustworthy? That Florida’s coastlines are unique? That seems to be the definition of arbitrary and capricious,”’ as reported in the Washington Post on Jan. 10. Accounts of reactions from the governors of other states from the WP article were mirrored in both the Post & Courier and The State newspapers.
North Carolina governor Roy Cooper tweeted, “Not Off Our Coast. We’ve been clear: this would bring unacceptable risks to our economy, our environment, and our coastal communities.” South Carolina governor McMaster, long a Trump supporter, also issued a statement saying, “We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline.”
This may be a good time to recall; Charleston has become an annual winner of Conde’ Nast’s number one place to visit award. Tourism is the largest single industry in South Carolina, accounting for hundreds of thousands of jobs. It also comprises a growing percentage of Gross State Product, which the Palmetto Institute projects will be $40 billion a year by 2020.
Peg Howell is positively emphatic about the dangers of offshore drilling. She is a Pawley’s Island native, founder of SODA, and former “company man.” The term is oil industry shorthand for the person in charge of an oil rig [first woman to hold the title, incidentally]. She is particularly alarmed at the prospect of oil exploration in the wake of Trump’s reversal of safety regulations put in place after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. She is uniquely qualified to detail the dangers of offshore drilling and plans to do just that.
The Sea Islands Action Network (SIAN) is a forum based on Seabrook where concerned citizens can work together to influence elected representatives. They are hosting a presentation by Howell at their Lake House starting at 4 p.m. on Jan. 30. The event is open to the public, but registration is required for access to the gated community. Visit SIANSC.com for more information, and to complete the process. Howell’s presentation may help you customize comments to BOEM for best effect.
BOEM has their own suggestions on public comments. Their general recommendation is to leave emotion on the shelf. For more detail on BOEM’s guidelines, visit BOEM.gov/National-Program-Comment/.