Legislators on a special study committee say they are interested in what could be found by energy companies searching for oil or natural gas off the South Carolina coast, but made it clear that curiosity does not necessarily extend to any offshore drilling that could follow.
Members of the House Offshore Drilling Ad-hoc Committee listened to federal regulators and industry supporters in a hearing last week. The meeting comes as the Trump Administration moves to open parts of the South Atlantic to oil and gas exploration. University of South Carolina geology professor James Knapp told the panel it’s been decades since the ocean floor there was last mapped out.
“Informed decisions about offshore development potential can only be made with new, state-of-the-art geophysical data,” he told the panel. “We’re basically talking about completely hypotheticals when we start talking about using data that are 30 years out of date.”
Several companies are seeking federal permits to use seismic “air guns,” which are towed behind vessels and shoot blasts of compressed air through the water and into the seabed. Researchers use reflections from the blast to map out the ocean floor, identify underwater fault lines, and analyze geologic formations that could hint about buried oil and gas deposits. Some environmental groups argue the blasts can harm ocean wildlife, particularly marine mammals. But industry supporters say there is little conclusive evidence.
The Obama-era Department of Interior initially moved towards reopening the South Atlantic for seismic surveys, before ruling it out in March 2016. However, the Trump Administration is reconsidering. A public comment period recently closed on the Interior Department’s study of whether to allow such searches within the next five years. Conventional wisdom in the industry is that the South Atlantic continental shelf does not contain enough oil to financially justify drilling, but survey technology has improved significantly since the region’s last surveys.
“We would be doing the people of our state an injustice by not looking at what’s off our shore,” State Rep. Bill Hixon, R-N. Augusta, said. “We’ve got to learn.” However, he stopped short of backing any drilling should those surveys prove successful.
But State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said he believes the surveys would only occur search firms were optimistic that drilling would follow.
“I do want to know what is out there. I don’t think that we can make good decisions until we ultimately know,” he said. “But I want to make sure that, by knowing, I am not backing myself into a corner of having to go in a particular direction after that information is found.”
Other legislators were skeptical of the oil industry appearing in South Carolina at all. “We’re a state of tourism,” State Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, said. “So, in the case of an oil spill, there could be a negative impact to the state.’’
The committee plans several future hearings before making recommendations to the full House next session.