On Saturday, voters in South Carolina will head to the polls for the Democratic primary in the state, but there is one divisive local issue they won’t be able to use for their decision.
That’s because as the election season progresses, more and more Democrats — including, now, both of the party’s presidential contenders — are distancing themselves from the Obama administration on the issue of offshore drilling in the Atlantic.
It’s not immediately apparent whether Clinton’s move is the result of pressure to keep up with the Sanders campaign’s more aggressive climate policies or whether it’s the simple product of giving the people what they want. At this point, counties, cities, and towns along South Carolina’s entire coastline have signed resolutions against offshore drilling or seismic testings, a preliminary step to drilling.
Clinton’s evolution on the issue could not come at a better time. She took the opportunity to clarify her position in December while on a progressive talk show based in South Carolina.
“I am very skeptical about the need or desire for us to pursue offshore drilling off the coast of South Carolina, and frankly off the coast of other Southeast states,” said she said, adding that drilling offshore poses environmental risks and would delay renewable energy development.
The candidate has come a long way. As Secretary of State, Clinton supported issuing permits to Shell to drill in the Arctic. She broke with the administration on that issue in August, but did not explicitly come out against drilling in the Atlantic until recently. In fact, there is no mention of the Atlantic on the candidate’s energy and climate policy page. Clinton’s campaign did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
On the other hand, Vermont’s Sen. Sanders, who has mounted a surprisingly competitive race against Clinton, attempted to ban new offshore drilling five years ago. As a candidate, his climate plan flatly bans any new leases for fossil fuel development on public lands or in U.S. waters.
Not a single Republican candidate has opposed drilling in the Atlantic, which the Obama Administration included in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year plan.
But that might not be what the people want.
The Southeast is not often considered a bastion of environmentalism, yet more than 100 towns and more than 700 state and local elected officials, not to mention 100 members of Congress, have publicly opposed drilling in the Atlantic.
“Our economy is tourism. That is the only industry on Kure Beach,” the North Carolina town’s mayor, Emilie Swearingen, told ThinkProgress last month. “We can’t afford to put that in jeopardy.”
Charleston, South Carolina Mayor Joe Riley has the same message. “We’re not for sale,” he said in May. “We don’t need to risk trading the quality of our environment for some prospective economic gain.”
In December, more than 400 businesses asked South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to oppose offshore drilling.
However, nearly every governor of the states proposed in the plan — Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia — have supported offshore drilling, including Virginia’s Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the only Democrat of the bunch.
But South Carolina isn’t the only place where the specter of offshore drilling is pushing politicians to the left. Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam formally broke with McAuliffe on Thursday, writing a letter to the Administration asking it to reconsider the plan. Northam has said he will run for governor in 2017.