COLUMBIA, S.C. — After waiting in the morning chill for other lawmakers to speak, state Rep. Nancy Mace finally took the microphone. She was the General Assembly’s newest member, only four weeks on the job, “a baby among these folks,” she told the crowd.
But the words she roared into the mic set off a round of whistling, shouting and fist pumps. Like several GOP legislators who joined Democrats in stirring the crowd, Mace broke sharply with the president over his plan to offer oil and gas companies leases to drill a few miles off beaches that bring $20 billion in annual revenue to South Carolina and support 600,000 tourism jobs.
“Eight to 10 million tourists a year come down to Charleston. They don’t want to come to see oil drilling off the coast,” said Mace, who represents an area that includes the city. The former military cadet laid down a gauntlet: “Ain’t gonna happen. Not on my watch!”
As the Interior Department hosts public “listening sessions” through early March to explain its proposed five-year lease plan — which would open 95 percent of the nation’s outer continental shelf to potential drilling — a growing chorus of bipartisan opposition is finding its voice. At least a half-dozen similar rallies have taken place in other cities where sessions were held, including in New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Oregon and California.
Mace’s defiance is an indication of how deep the opposition goes. Atlantic and Pacific coast governors, congressional delegations and attorneys general delivered the first waves of protests. Now state lawmakers, mayors and city councils are mobilizing in an attempt to stop the administration’s plan.
From the front steps of South Carolina’s capitol, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was targeted by Republicans and Democrats alike for exempting Florida from the leasing plan less than a week after it was announced. Zinke said Florida was spared because its geology is different, although he offered no scientific studies to support his claim.
Sen. Chip Campsen (R) was outraged. “If Florida is unique, we’re more unique,” he said a few days after speaking at the mid-February event. “We have the most beautiful and historic coastline on the East Coast.”
Oil and gas representatives say energy development off that coast could provide the state $2.7 billion in annual economic growth, 35,000 jobs and potentially lower costs for residents struggling to pay their heating bills.
But Campsen focused on what they fail to say: Oil and gas drilling could permanently scar the state’s pristine coast. Refineries, chemical plants, sea-to-shore pipelines and storage tanks would be built and placed near and on beaches. Roads would be needed for a parade of diesel trucks to haul material away.
“We have a lot at stake, a lot to protect, a lot in danger,” said Campsen, an avid outdoorsman whose district also overlaps Charleston. “People need to understand that if you are going to have offshore drilling, you have to industrialize a huge portion of your coast.”
Along the Gulf Coast, oil and gas companies control leases on 14 million acres as part of a long history of drilling. And the country relied on the Gulf Coast for its gas reserves after the 1970s Arab oil embargo hobbled the U.S. economy.
The Atlantic coast, by contrast, developed a beach tourism economy. But when Congress decided to lift a 40-year ban on exporting American crude oil in 2015, the industry began searching for oil to put into the world market and increased its demand to drill in the Atlantic.
“We don’t want it. We don’t need unsightly oil rigs and the smelly pipelines sprawled across our beaches and coast,” said Rep. Robert Brown (D), known to butt heads with Republicans who also represent parts of Charleston. “Why allow this dirty industry to devalue our most valuable property?”
The Trump administration’s drilling plan came under fire minutes after it was announced in early January, and the fury only intensified when Zinke traveled to Florida, met with its GOP governor, Rick Scott, and assured him that the Sunshine State would be excluded.
Other governors along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts immediately demanded the same consideration, and their attorneys general sent a letter to Zinke asking him to back off the plan or, some warned, face lawsuits.
Zinke has been accused of favoring oil and gas interests over nearly everything else. Between February and November of last year, top Interior officials had nearly 180 meetings with industry representatives, according to an analysis of the department’s visitor log by the nonprofit organization Friends of the Earth.
“You always know these meetings are happening, but the sheer volume was shocking,” said Nicole Ghio, fossil fuels program manager for the group, which leans to the political left. It undertook the analysis, she said, because opposition to the drilling plan was so immediate, strong and bipartisan on both coasts that Friends of the Earth wondered how the administration put it together.
The secretary’s effort to justify the plan since its rollout is “striking,” according to Ghio. “You look at the immediate exemption of Florida; it looks political,” she said. “There’s no legal rationale. Florida is important, but I say the same about California, my state. “
The meetings at the Interior Department contrast with the listening sessions the department is holding in 23 cities in coastal states, from Boston, Trenton, N.J., and Tallahassee to Olympia, Wash., Salem, Ore., and Sacramento. The sessions are far different from the sometimes boisterous public hearings they replaced: After a video presentation about the drilling plan, anyone in attendance can log comments into a bank of computers.
The powerful emotions at Columbia’s rally fizzled under the new format, which included experts from the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management quietly answering questions one on one in a hotel meeting room. Only once did the volume rise, when a man with a bullhorn leaped on a chair. “Mic check!” yelled Drew Hudson, a local resident opposed to the drilling. “This process is a sham!”
Renee Orr, chief of the bureau’s Office of Strategic Resources, said the new format is a better way to exchange ideas as opposed to the shouting and booing that often characterizes public hearings. But across the country, participants have disagreed, including a New Jersey protester who described the listening session as “dodging democracy.”
But standing in a hallway outside the session, two of the Interior Department’s supporters talked about the plan’s pluses. Tim Page, executive director of the Consumer Energy Alliance, said drilling off the South Carolina coast could help “keep energy prices low for consumers so they won’t have to choose between heat and groceries,” he said.
Mark Harmon, the director of a state unit of the American Petroleum Institute, stressed a different point. “Ultimately it means the potential for jobs and reinvestment in the community,” he said.
When the state’s newest legislator took her fight against drilling to her Facebook page, Mace heard from one of the oil industry’s powerful backers. And in a comment posted to the page, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) lit into her.
“I believe that if natural gas were discovered at distances over the visible horizon, in abundant recoverable resources, this conversation would be different,” wrote Duncan, who favors seismic testing to determine how much oil and gas might lie off the state’s coast. “But having a closed mind about offshore activities is shortsighted. Everyone likes their gasoline and natural gas supplying industries like Alcoa and Nucor Steel — as long as it is produced elsewhere.”
Mace replied: “Thank you Congressman Jeff Duncan for offering your thoughts here. However, every municipality along the coast disagrees with you.”
Indeed, South Carolina’s opposition and support for drilling is largely a divide between people who live on the coast and those who don’t. “It’s easy for the upstate to support offshore drilling when it ain’t in your back yard,” Mace added in her reply. “Coastal communities ought to have input on this decision.”
The comment thread on the Facebook page filled with remarks from people who said that she was out of step, that they didn’t know she would take such a stand against a Republican agenda, that they would reconsider their support for her.
Mace shrugged them off. “I worked for President Trump . . . in several states. I support his agenda,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean like a blind sheep I will agree with everything. I represent the Charleston area.”