How Offshore Drilling Could Become A Bipartisan Issue


Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton works the crowd in North Charleston, S.C., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. Clinton recently said she would take a "hard look" at proposed offshore Atlantic drilling.

If all politics are local, as the saying goes, then offshore drilling is poised to put presidential candidates in the hot seat come January, when the primaries reach South Carolina.

South Carolina hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, making it one of the reddest states in the nation, but opposition to offshore drilling is increasingly looking like a bipartisan issue.

More than 400 businesses on Wednesday asked Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to change her position and oppose offshore drilling. They are part of a growing movement in South Carolina to oppose offshore drilling, after the federal government included four southeastern states in its five-year plan for energy development off the Atlantic coast. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is expected to begin the permitting process for seismic testing next month.

Then, during an appearance on a Columbia, South Carolina-based left-wing talk radio show Wednesday, Clinton said she would take a “hard look” at proposals to drill for oil off the southeast coastline.

“I am very skeptical about the need or the desire for us to pursue offshore drilling off the coast of South Carolina,” Clinton said.

This position may represent an evolution for the candidate. In 2006, as the junior senator from New York, Clinton voted in favor of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), which opened an additional 8 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. The law also instituted revenue sharing with the gulf states. Currently, the Atlantic states would not enjoy revenue-sharing. Fellow Democratic candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have both been stanch opponents of offshore drilling in any form. Sanders opposed GOMESA.

Republican candidates, who have been more aggressive on fossil fuel development, might do well to follow Clinton’s conversion.

“You’ve got a lot of Republicans along the coast who have a lot of serious concerns,” Alex Terrell, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, told ThinkProgress.

Candidates will have to decide whether they believe polling from the American Petroleum Institute, which consistently finds that the majority of South Carolinians support offshore drilling.

But if that’s the case, asks Ann Timberlake, director of the South Carolina League of Conservation Voters, then why has every municipality along the coast passed a referendum against offshore drilling?

“In South Carolina, this is a bipartisan issue. Both Republican and Democratic voters, all along our coast especially, are opposed,” Timberlake said. “You have to consider the source on that poll.”

Many of the Republican candidates haven’t come out one way or another on offshore Atlantic drilling, although South Carolina’s hometown candidate, Lindsey Graham, certainly has. Graham has been advocating for offshore drilling since 2012, although he previously opposed it. Others, too, have taken a position. Carly Fiorina, for instance, has said, “If we are serious about growing our economy and lessening our dependence on foreign oil, then offshore drilling has to be part of that equation.”

Fiorina might find that particular message doesn’t sit well with South Carolinians. “Projections are that the oil off South Carolina’s coast would fuel the country for six days,” Timberlake said. “Why would we risk that?”

Hamilton Davis, energy program director at the Coastal Conservation League, agreed. Particularly in light of the recent deal to repeal the oil export ban, the idea that South Carolina’s coast is going to provide energy security is a non-starter, he said, and just exposes the real reason people are pushing oil development. “It has to do with petroleum industry profits,” he said.

“Conventional wisdom over the decades has been it doesn’t make sense to develop oil resources off the East Coast. That’s changed,” he said. “We’re close enough now that this is a real threat, and that’s why you’re seeing the response that you’re seeing.”

Davis suggested that Republicans would get further by framing the offshore oil issue as a states’ rights one.

“What people are looking for at the end of the day is for Washington to respect what people on the ground think about these issues,” Davis said.