2020 Democratic contenders seize on opposition to offshore drilling in South Carolina

As coastal states resist offshore drilling, Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning on the issue.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has taken a hard stance on offshore drilling. (Photo CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has taken a hard stance on offshore drilling. (Photo CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential contenders are taking note of swelling opposition to offshore drilling in the Southeast, especially in the early primary state of South Carolina, where lawmakers are working to head off federal drilling efforts.

The issue is emerging as a potentially winning topic for Democrats at a time when Republicans are increasingly divided on President Donald Trump’s push to expand fossil fuel drilling off the coast.

On Wednesday, the South Carolina Senate voted 40 to 4 in favor of blocking the establishment of refineries and other infrastructure allowing for offshore drilling via the state’s budget. The vote cut across party lines, with significant backing from Republicans who have expressed concern that offshore drilling could harm the state’s tourism industry, which is worth more than $20 billion.

“Once we open this door, we could all be impacted with significant economic damages to our coast,” state Sen. Marlon Kimpson (D) said.


The vote approved a budget proviso which is now headed to the South Carolina House. And while the proviso is only temporary, extending one year along with the state’s budget, drilling opponents have argued that the vote underscores the deep-rooted bipartisan opposition to offshore fossil fuel exploration and development in South Carolina.

Democratic 2020 presidential contenders have seized on that general sentiment. During a campaign stop in Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) vowed that she would put a halt to offshore drilling immediately if elected president.

“On day one of a Warren administration, I will sign into law a moratorium to stop all offshore drillings [sic],” she pledged.

Warren made the comments in South Carolina’s coastal 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC), a lawmaker who won his seat largely thanks to his opposition to offshore drilling. That same day, she released a detailed policy aimed at protecting public lands, through which she addressed both onshore and offshore drilling. Her plan calls for “a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases” and would apply to all federal lands and waters.

That proposal is notable in no small part because other Democratic candidates have been slower to release specific energy and environment policies, even as climate change has emerged as a top campaign issue. While most Democratic presidential candidates have backed the Green New Deal resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), they have largely punted on specifics.


But other candidates have also seen an opening in South Carolina as opposition to offshore drilling ramps up. Campaigning in the state in February, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) raised the issue while expressing her support for the “underlying principles” behind the Green New Deal resolution.

“Climate change is truly an existential threat to our country. And if you look at it in terms of how it is affecting many areas, including right here in South Carolina, when we look at the offshore drilling that’s taking place, all of these issues are connected and we need to have a sense of urgency,” Harris said at the time.

The decision to campaign on offshore drilling opposition in South Carolina could gain traction. The Trump administration has sought to open virtually all U.S. waters up to offshore drilling, but officials in every single East and West Coast state oppose that effort. South Carolina will notably vote early in the 2020 primaries, giving it outsized importance, and offshore drilling is deeply unpopular across party lines.

Some of the other presidential contenders already have a history of opposing offshore drilling. Along with Warren, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) co-sponsored a 2017 bill that would have blocked any oil and gas activities in U.S. waters. Another candidate has already shifted his stance — former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) apologized for a 2016 vote that left open the possibility of expanding offshore drilling to the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where it is currently banned.

That about-face from O’Rourke speaks to larger Democratic awareness about the unpopularity of offshore drilling in states that could prove critical in 2020. And opposition to the practice is only growing. Officials have pointed to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which devastated the Gulf Coast, as an example of the hazards of drilling.


Experts say those concerns are rooted in reality. According to a study from the nonprofit organization Oceana, released Thursday, the danger associated with offshore drilling is only increasing. The report found that nearly a decade after the BP crisis, the Trump administration’s push to weaken safety and environmental protections is putting coastal communities and ecosystems at greater risk of a damaging oil spill in addition to threatening workers.

Risks associated with offshore drilling were already high to begin with. Oceana found that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) regularly grants exemptions to offshore drilling safety requirements and that 1,568 injuries were reported by offshore operators between 2011 and 2017. Moreover, between 2007 and 2017, at least 6,500 oil spills occurred in U.S. waters. Such spills are often devastating for human health along with the environment and can be catastrophic for tourism and local economies.

“States on every coast would face unacceptable risk if President Trump’s plan for offshore drilling moves forward,” Oceana campaign director Diane Hoskins said.

Warren’s comments on Monday indicate Democratic presidential contenders may increasingly campaign on the issue, which has pitted coastal Republicans against Trump. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and Attorney General Alan Wilson (R) are among officials opposing drilling off the state’s coast. Other states likely to be political battleground areas include Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia — all coastal states where anti-drilling sentiment runs deep.

Hoskins called the growing attention to the issue from candidates “incredible” and said that offshore drilling comments on the campaign trail are a broader rebuttal of the Trump administration’s drilling ambitions.

“President Trump is uniting both Republicans and Democrats at every level of elected government along the East Coast against his offshore drilling plan,” she said. “Ultimately the question will be, is President Trump going to stand with the coastal communities who have the most to lose from dirty and dangerous offshore drilling?”