Cunningham Champions Bipartisan Push to Ban Offshore Drilling Expansion

March 30, 2019 by Dan McCue

First-term Representative Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., this week introduced legislation aimed at banning offshore oil and gas exploration on the eastern seaboard and Pacific Coast.

Offshore oil and gas exploration has been a hot-button issue in South Carolina and many other coastal states since 2015, when the Obama administration revealed separate but parallel plans to allow seismic testing and the sale of exploration leases in previously undisturbed areas off the East Coast and other select areas.

Together, concerned citizens, business owners, and government officials beat back both plans.

But within weeks of taking office, President Donald Trump announced an even more ambitious plan to open nearly all coastal waters to offshore drilling and exploration, rolling back the ban set down in the waning days of the Obama White House.

The oil and gas exploration plan inspired widespread consternation in the days and weeks after it was announced.

Local lawmakers from Myrtle Beach to Beaufort and even from inland communities like Greenville and Columbia panned the proposal, saying it poses too profound a threat to the state’s $20 billion tourism industry.

Among those who spoke out repeatedly about the administration’s plan was Cunningham, and the issue is widely seen as enabling him to flip his congressional district, which was previously represented by Republican Mark Sanford, to the Democrats last year.

The fractious debate of offshore drilling took a turn shortly after the election, when the Trump administration went ahead and authorized seismic air gun surveys of the bottom of offshore waters, giving five companies the right to conduct the tests in a stretch of ocean extending from Delaware to Florida.

That move inspired nine environmental groups and 16 coastal communities in South Carolina to sue the administration in a pair of federal lawsuits filed in Charleston.

The plaintiffs contend the authorizations allow for nearly 850 combined days of around-the-clock activity, amounting to more than five million total seismic airgun blasts. And that, they say, will harass and kill several marine species, including critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Nearly all of the plaintiffs have said they are equally concerned the pipelines, oil and gas processing facilities, and refineries that would come along with the offshore rigs would destroy tourism and coastal investment in homes and recreation by effectively industrializing coastal areas.

“Given how soundly opposed this proposed activity is, there’s no valid reason to subject the ocean environment and the state economy to such harm,” said Mike Mather, a senior spokesman with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Earlier this year Cunningham introduced a bill that proposed a 10-year moratorium on offshore drilling and seismic testing blasts. His new bill, called the “Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act,” goes much further, calling for a complete ban on these activities in the east and west.

It has been reported that Representative Francis Rooney, R-Fla., is poised to file a similar bill, calling for a ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration off the Gulf Coast, and that Rooney and Cunningham will co-sponsor each other’s bills.

In an interview with the Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, Cunningham said, “It feels great to be able to look people in the eye back in the 1st District and say I kept promises.”

He expounded on this further on Friday in the email newsletter  he sent to his constituents.

“Our beaches, businesses, and way of life should not be for sale,” Cunningham wrote. “South Carolinians want nothing to do with offshore drilling and the devastating threat it poses to our vibrant natural resources.

“I am proud to have the support of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, advocates, and organizations up and down South Carolina and across both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines,” he said. “It’s an honor to have the opportunity to lead this bipartisan bill across the finish line to ban offshore drilling off our coast once and for all.”

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