Coastal South Carolina has long been recognized by locals and tourists alike for its warm waters, dazzling natural landscapes and prime seafood cuisine. But lately, communities up and down the shoreline have been making a name for themselves in another way: They’re leading the historically conservative state in a shift toward support for alternative energy and away from fossil fuel energy development.

In the past year, the waters off the coast of South Carolina have captured the federal government’s attention with their potential for several forms of energy development: offshore oil and gas drilling on the one hand, and offshore wind development on the other. And while both are mere proposals for now, they’ve garnered huge amounts of attention from local coastal communities — and it looks as though support for wind is winning by a long shot.

It’s a trend that’s been growing throughout the rest of the nation as well. Despite tumbling oil prices, the U.S. has been increasing its expansion of renewable energy, making major investments in both solar and wind energy. The country saw $56 billion worth of investments in clean energy last year, according to an analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and wind energy — alongside solar — is a growing interest. There are about 50,000 operating utility-scale wind turbines in the U.S., according to the American Wind Energy Association, with $100 billion invested in new projects since 2008.

And protests against the idea of offshore drilling, which has been proposed in regions up and down the Atlantic coast, have cropped up in many of the other Southeastern states as well, some of which have also been involved in talks with the federal government about the development of wind energy. What makes South Carolina notable, aside from its historically conservative stance on energy development, is the fact that its negotiations on oil and wind development are taking place at the same time. Coupled with the state’s recent expansion of solar power, the increasingly passionate energy debate in South Carolina points to a shift in public opinion that may mirror evolving attitudes toward alternative energy in the country as a whole.

“What we’re seeing is a transformation in views about what folks want,” said Christopher DeScherer, a managing attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston, S.C., office. “Folks want cleaner forms of energy that create jobs that are consistent with the South Carolina Lowcountry and everything that folks care about in terms of fishing and recreation and that way of life.” Oil and gas drilling, he said, is not consistent with these values.

Drilling off the South Carolina coast?

The commotion over oil and gas drilling began more than a year ago when the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) began eyeing territory up and down the Atlantic coast for potential oil and gas development. The bureau released a draft proposal on January 2015 for a five-year oil and gas leasing program, which would go into effect from 2017 to 2022, on the outer continental shelf, including a region in the south Atlantic off the coast of South Carolina. Following a public comment period, the bureau began work on a second proposal which will be released this year.

The proposal has since raised bitter controversy in the Southeast, and particularly in coastal Carolina. According to a recent poll commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, 68 percent of South Carolinians support offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. This poll was cited in a recent letter to the editor published in the Charleston-based Post and Courier, written by Bonnie Loomis, executive director of the South Carolina Petroleum Council.

“Gas prices are at their lowest levels in a decade, largely due to surging U.S. energy production over the past dozen years,” she wrote. “Given these great results, it makes sense for South Carolina to join the American energy revolution, and we can also enjoy more than 35,000 new jobs across a variety of industries.”

Loomis, who mentioned that she grew up on the coast, also wrote, “Discussions about offshore energy exploration that ignore the large numbers of average South Carolinians who support the idea don’t tell the whole story.”

However, the most vocal opinions on the matter have come in the form of strong opposition from coastal communities, who are hoping to gain the support of Gov. Nikki Haley and ultimately have the region removed from BOEM’s list of proposed leasing areas.

According to a grassroots coalition called Don’t Drill Lowcountry, every coastal municipality in the state has passed a resolution opposing the drilling. And dozens of businesses along the coast have joined the coalition and expressed their opposition as well. Meanwhile, other states up and down the coast, including conservative Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have also organized similarly vocal protests over their inclusion in the proposal.

Concerns about the drilling include the potential for large-scale spills, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, according to Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director at the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. In addition, citizens are concerned about the potential impacts of the day-to-day drilling operations on both humans and wildlife.

“Folks believe that drilling would threaten everything from the environment to the economy, which includes commercial and recreational fishing and tourism,” said DeScherer. “But overall I think the bottom line is folks realize this is simply inconsistent and would threaten the quality of life along the South Carolina coast.”

Advocates of the oil and gas industry have argued that drilling would be an economic boon to the Southeast, citing a 2013 report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute and National Ocean Industries Association. However, a 2015 study prepared by the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey concluded that these benefits were overestimated — a finding that’s been much-publicized in the ongoing local debate.

The January 2015 proposal — which was just a draft — leaves plenty of room for changes before any final decisions are made and effected. A new proposed program, revised in response to public feedback, is supposed to be released early this year. Another public comment period will accompany that proposal, and that feedback will be used to issue a last proposed final program, which must then be approved by Congress. At any point along the way, zones may be removed from the list of proposed leasing areas.

All public feedback has the potential to be taken into account by BOEM between now and 2017, which is one reason the coastal communities have been so vocal. However, the most important feedback will come from policymakers, particularly state governors — which is why the communities have largely focused their efforts on pressuring Gov. Haley to change her stance on the drilling and request the state’s removal from the leasing zones. Haley has heretofore supported the drilling proposal.

The coastal communities are in a unique position to make a case on this issue, given the fact that they are the municipalities whose economies and way of life will be most affected if the proposal were to be enacted. And it’s likely that their concerns will be taken most seriously by their own elected officials. To that end, the communities’ arguments against drilling have largely centered on its potential impact on local economies — most notably, the fishing and tourism industries — as well as its threats to the unique ecology found along the shoreline.

And they’ve made headway already with other elected officials. South Carolina U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican, came out in opposition of the drilling last year and has since pushed strongly for the Obama administration to abandon its plans, citing his constituents’ overwhelming concerns about threats to tourism and the coastline’s natural resources.

Kickstarting offshore wind

Wind development in the region  is an even newer project. In November 2015, BOEM released a proposal to award commercial leases off the shore of South Carolina for wind energy development — a step that would help allow the U.S. to finally get its offshore wind industry, which is now getting started but currently lags behind countries like China and the UK, off the ground and into the water, so to speak.

The move is part of a broader strategy to develop wind farms up and down the Atlantic Coast, with 11 commercial wind energy leases having already been granted in other locations, according to BOEM director Abigail Ross Hopper, although development has not yet been completed on them. 

While the official announcement is only a few months old, the bureau had spent several years before that point discussing and narrowing down potential sites with representatives from federal, state, local and tribal governments, Hopper said.

By November, the bureau had identified four “call areas,” or areas that are potentially open for leasing. These call areas span regions up and down the length of the state. The bureau also opened a public comment period in November, which closed this week and also marked the deadline for wind developers to express an interest in leasing. As of Wednesday, Boem was expecting at least two nominations to develop either part or all of the four South Carolina call areas, according to an email from Tracey Moriarty, a public affairs officer with the bureau. “Upon their receipt, BOEM will review the nominations to assess the companies’ legal, technical, and financial qualifications,” she said in the email.

In the meantime, the response from coastal communities so far has been positive, according to BOEM officials. The bureau has already hosted three public meetings throughout the state to solicit input on the proposal, which BOEM environmental protection specialist Brian Krevor said were favorably received. “They were extremely well attended and we got some very good, well-informed questions from the public,” he said.

So far, only one major point of contention seems to have arisen in regard to the wind proposal. Some local organizations, including the Coastal Conservation League, feel that one of the call areas should be removed from the proposed leasing grounds on the basis of its environmental importance. The site, called the Cape Romain call area, is located close to Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, known for its importance to native plants, marine life, birds and other wildlife. However, Davis stressed that the League otherwise supports offshore wind development in the state.

For now, both wind development and drilling are still up in the air. When it comes to oil leasing, BOEM still needs to submit several more proposals, the last of which must be submitted to Congress, before it can move forward with leasing, which would begin in 2021 at the earliest. And on the wind development front, the bureau will need to complete its review of the development nominations before assessing its next steps.

Many citizens along the coast appear to determined to continue pushing back against oil and gas drilling. Charleston newspaper The Post and Courier reported last month that more than 400 businesses had presented Gov. Nikki Haley, who has supported the proposal, with a letter urging her to oppose the development.

Such action from the South Carolina coast is a notable development in a state whose leaders have often supported the interests of the fossil fuel industry. In 2015, for instance, South Carolina was among two dozen states that filed lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

But some experts feel that the recent activity is continued evidence of a growing shift in attitudes toward energy state-wide. Despite her support for oil and gas development, Gov. Haley also signed legislation into effect in 2014 loosening previous restrictions on solar energy. Since then, solar power initiatives have been expanding in the state.

“I think it does represent this dichotomy of perspective where traditional resources like oil and gas are not viewed as advantages to the state, whereas clean energies are being increasingly utilized and promoted through policy and also supported by public opinion,” said Davis.

And David Carr, another attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center specializing in alternative energy, noted that the interest in renewable energy has been a growing movement in recent years.

“I think this interest in the local communities in offshore wind, a clean, green, zero-carbon resource — that interest has been growing over time,” Carr said. “And I think this expression of interest is the culmination of increased interest in renewables — solar, wind, offshore wind — in South Carolina.”