By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
The Obama administration surprised conservationists and coastal communities alike early in 2015, floating the concept of allowing oil drilling in the Atlantic. Reaction from the South Carolina Environmental Law Project was immediate.
SCELP, with help from grass roots organizations like No Drill SC, 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.
The proposal was withdrawn in 2016, followed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) disapproval of accompanying requests to conduct seismic testing on Jan. 7. No one was surprised when the newly elected administration breathed life into the zombie issue after taking office a few weeks later.
Seabrook, Kiawah, Isle of Palms, and Folly Beach wasted no time last spring, joining the tsunami of communities determined to protect their beaches from drilling. Permits for seismic testing issued in conjunction with the drilling proposal remained a separate issue tackled by Seabrook Island Town Council last summer.
Retiring, long-term SITC member Jody Turner issued a call for separate attention to testing in July. Action matters regardless of the ruling on drilling, because the specter of drilling creates a market for seismic mapping even absent approval for exploration permits by companies like Exxon, who are trying to anticipate the next policy change. Seismic testing has been shown to be particularly harmful to loggerhead seaturtles, bottlenose dolphins, and right whales that frequent South Carolina’s coast.
Seabrook mayor Ron Ciancio was quick to craft a response exclusive to the testing permits well in advance of BOEM’S Aug. 17 deadline.
“BOEM tallied 816,000 comments in response to the Request for Information. 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 The Island Connection in an email.
Asked if Kiawah commented, Moriarty stated, “We have not received any comments from the Town of Kiawah Island regarding the National OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program.”
Regarding the value of public comments, Moriarty stated, “Public input is critical to this process. There are at least three points during the 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program preparation process when comments are solicited.
Comments on the RFI are analyzed, summarized and used to help prepare the Draft Proposed Program Decision Document (DPP), the first of three analytical proposals the Department of the Interior uses to make decisions under OCSLA.
“During this time, BOEM will hold public meetings around the country in areas that may [be] affected by offshore oil and gas activity in order to further gather information from stakeholders and to educate the public on the process.”
“Yes,” added Moriarty, 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 may approve a new National OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program.”
Asked why coastal communities were going through all of this again so close on the heels of an effort that resulted in a resounding “NO,” Moriarty cited President Trump’s America First Offshore Energy Strategy, as outlined in Executive Order 13795.
She stated, “BOEM expects to publish a DPP 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 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.”
Asked if BOEM could buck the administration/Executive Order, Moriarty responded with Section 18 of the OCS Lands Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to prepare and maintain a schedule of OCS oil and gas lease sales that “best meet national energy needs for the five year period following its approval or re-approval,” and charges the Secretary with the responsibility to select the timing and location of OCS leasing so as to “balance, to the maximum extent practicable, the potential for environmental damage, the potential for the discovery of oil and gas, and the potential for adverse impact on the coastal zone.”
When making his balancing decision, the Secretary must consider the eight factors laid out in Section 18 when determining the size, timing, and location of oil and gas activities among the different areas of the OCS. BOEM’s job is to provide the Secretary the best information and analysis available with respect to those factors so that he can make an informed decision, as required by the OCS Lands Act.
The eight factors include:
1. Geographic, Geological, and Ecological Characteristics
2. Equitable Sharing of Developmental Benefits and Environmental Risks
3. Location with Respect to Regional and National Energy Markets and Needs
4. Location with Respect to Other Uses of the Sea and Seabed
5. Interest of Potential Oil and Gas Producers
6. Laws, Goals, and Policies of Affected States
7. Environmental Sensitivity and Marine Productivity
8. Environmental and Predictive Information
Related Articles: April 10, 2015 islandconnectionnews.com/oped-state-senator-representingkiawah-and-seabrook-islands-opposesoffshore-drilling/