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Environmental Activism in the US Is Popping Up in a Surprising Place

The Obama administration has proposed oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the East Coast — and that's got some people in South Carolina really upset.
June 12, 2015, 10:55pm
Photo by Bruce Smith/AP

A showdown between oil and gas companies, pro-drilling politicians, and a newly formed grassroots environmental group is brewing in South Carolina.

In late January, the Obama administration proposed to sell oil and gas leases for federally controlled areas in the Atlantic Ocean.

But in South Carolina opposition to offshore drilling quickly emerged. A group called SODA POP, short for Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic — Prevent Oil Pollution is active in the Grand Strand, a strip of coastal land that includes Myrtle Beach and tight-nit communities like Murrell's Inlet (known as the seafood capital of South Carolina) and Pawley's Island.

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"We began to realize that if we didn't do something, we'd wake up one day and it would be too late," Jim Watkins, a retired Presbyterian minister and one of SODA POP's main organizers, told VICE News. "The South Carolina coast could easily find itself like the Gulf of Mexico. That mobilized folks."

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South Carolina, with its $18 billion tourism industry supporting one-in-10 jobs in the state, has 187 miles of coastline, essential to attracting millions of yearly visitors, and an indispensable habitat for endangered species, like the loggerhead turtle, and for migratory birds.

In February, the US Department of Interior endorsed plans for seismic testing, the first step toward allowing drilling, which involves survey ships shooting loud blasts of compressed air miles under the seafloor to estimate just how much oil and gas is buried off the coast. Opponents contend the testing will be devastating to large mammals like whales and dolphins and they fear oil spills, industrial pollution, and added energy infrastructure could disrupt the state's most sensitive natural habitats.

Proponents claim drilling will create 35,000 jobs and provide $3.7 billion in revenue for the state by 2035. They also say offshore drilling is safer now than when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. If all goes according to industry plans, seismic testing could begin as early as next year, with lease sales slated for 2021. Production could kick off around 2030.

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Mary Erickson, a 35-year veteran of the oil and gas industry involved with SODA POP, said that while inherently she is "in no way anti-oil and gas … the implications for the state will be so negative that no amount of revenue could warrant it."

"All sources of information are skewed so heavily toward prodrilling that citizens are not get-ting the information they need," Erickson told VICE News. "If we get really good information out there, it's not a difficult decision."

Related: Five years after BP disaster Gulf of Mexico's fishing industry continues to struggle

More than 300 people attended SODA POP's initial late-March meeting, Watkins said, with the next planned for June 17. They've organized a robust letters to the editor campaign and connected with similar anti-drilling groups along the coast.

Nancy Cave, the Coastal Conservation League's (CCL) North Coast Director, called SODA POP "a true grassroots organization" that she "has every reason to believe will be successful."

Watkins, Erickson, and Cave all said the debate comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis: The Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf holds an estimated 4.72 billion barrels of oil, according to CCL, a relatively small amount compared to the 6.95 billion barrels consumed by the United States in 2014. And federal estimates about the amount of recoverable oil and gas off the Atlantic Coast are decades old.

"It appears there must be oil and gas out there, but it is not a significant amount," Cave told VICE News. "It just seems like it's too big of a risk for the reward."

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The proposed rigs would be invisible from the shore, drilling more than 50 miles off the coast, where the water is deeper — and the risks higher, said Erickson.

"The deeper you drill, the deeper the water, the more problems there are. And if there is a problem, the harder time you have resolving that problem," Erickson told VICE News. "It's just technically difficult."

Related: Shell plans to drill in the Arctic this summer and it's already failed a Coast Guard inspection

More than a dozen local and county governments along the coast have come out against the proposed drilling. State and federal officials, however, like Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Lindsay Graham, and Congressman Tom Rice, support the plans.

"Elected officials are not listening to the people that elected them," Erickson told VICE News. "They've been lured by the dollar signs."

Watkins, an Eagle Scout who calls South Carolina "my adopted state," said his faith drives his beliefs and "theology and ecology go hand in hand."

"From a very early age, even before I knew what theology was, I learned to respect nature and live alongside nature," Watkins told VICE News. "I truly believe we are stewards of creation, that there is a creator who asks us to be partners in creating a sustainable environment for both nature and humans to live together and thrive."

No stranger to the topic, Watkins once worked for a congressman who oversaw cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. He said the final congressional report on the incident, which listed human error as a cause, really struck him.

"A lot of the disasters that have occurred, if you trace them back, it's not that technology hasn't advanced, it's that somewhere along the lines some person made a mistake," Watkins told VICE News. "And all it takes is one mistake."

Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom