By Adva Saldinger
MYRTLE BEACH — A group of elected officials, business representatives and environmental advocates agreed on little Wednesday at a lively meeting about offshore energy production except that it is a timely issue to discuss.
In October, Congress lifted a moratorium on offshore drilling and then-President Bush advised the Minerals Management Service in the Department of Interior to create a five-year plan for energy production.
“I think it’s crucial for the folks around this table to have this conversation, and it’s important that the government weighs what they will say,” said Michael Whatley, the executive director of the Southeast Energy Alliance at the meeting held at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
In the proposed plan’s draft, the Minerals Management Service would offer leases in the Atlantic, including off the coast of South Carolina, beginning in 2014.
The South Carolina Natural Gas Exploration Feasibility Study Committee, chaired by state Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, is set to release a report within the next 10 days.
“I think it’s an excellent opportunity for the state,” said Campbell. “We need to look in South Carolina to open the offshore area for exploration.”
Offshore energy production could create jobs for South Carolina, and he said he is confident it could be done responsibly with limited environmental impact. He advocated remaining in the plan for the time being as more information is gathered.
“We’ve got to be in the plan; we’ve got to mitigate the environmental impact; we’ve got to be in the royalty scheme; and we’ve got to do everything to protect from leakage, then we should open it up,” said Campbell.
Hamilton Davis, a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League who also served on the committee, said he agrees with the report but is opposed to drilling and moving forward in the plan. He said the costs and benefits must be weighed carefully.
“We’re gambling with this idea that there might be something out there,” he said. “It’s not a big opportunity but it’s a big risk.”
The problem with drilling offshore for natural gas is that it is typically found with oil, and oil poses serious risks to tourism and the environment, Davis said.
Steve Chapman, managing partner of the Island Vista Resort in Myrtle Beach, said the beach is a critical asset for the tourism industry.
“Any kind of offshore exploration for energy is a concern for us, so we want to be at the table,” he said.
The conversation, which filled the meeting room with competing voices, lasted several hours and reached few conclusions.
Most participants agreed more information on what resources exist off the coast would be useful in making decisions moving forward. Little proof of resources is available and the latest studies are more than 30 years old.
Scott Harris, a geologist at the College of Charleston, said the Carolina Trough — a deep depositional basin — has the right conditions for oil and gas but wells drilled off the coast about 40 years ago found only little pieces of oil.
“[It’s about] what is economically retrievable. Those same holes still don’t have that economic feasibility at this point,” Harris said.
The part of the Carolina Trough off the coast of North Carolina might be a richer environment for natural resources, while the area off the S.C. coast are more barren, he said.
The amount of oil that could be found in wells off the coast would not have a significant impact on South Carolina’s energy needs, said Davis.
Lewis Gossett, president and CEO of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, said manufacturing is energy intensive and something must be done to make energy more affordable.
He called for a broad-based policy that develops every opportunity for energy production, and he cautioned that wind and solar power are not going to be enough.
“We want to see wind happen, but, realistically, it’s not going to be what powers our plants,” he said.
Others at the meeting agreed with his call for exploring all energy options.
Campbell said he is confident that both wind and natural gas could be an important part of the state’s energy plan moving forward.