“The Atlantic Ocean has never seen any commercial production of oil or gas drilling, and the Atlantic has not been open to oil or gas leasing for 30-some odd years,” said Christopher DeScherer, a Charleston-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “At least in the past several decades, this just hasn’t been an issue that came up here.”
In fact, the last time oil drilling was floated in the region at all was the late 1980s, when Mobil explored tapping a gas field near Cape Hatteras. Federal law—and local opposition that feared an Exxon Valdez-like disaster—put an end to that attempt.
Governors of all four states whose coastlines were under consideration—including Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat in Virginia, and Nikki Haley, a Republican of South Carolina—announced their support for oil drilling. But communities intervened, DeScherer said, and a partisan divide never emerged on the issue. Local retirees, environmentalists, and companies dependent on tourism and strong fisheries imagined an oil spill destroying their business or way of life, except the accident they cited this time around was BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
“Virtually every municipality along the coast of South Carolina has come out against this, no matter their political stripe,” he told me.
Howell added that many locals feared the southeastern coast would be “retrofit” for the oil industry. “The Gulf of Mexico grew up with the oil business, but there isn’t a coastline in the Gulf that’s like the coast of the Atlantic, where there are resorts and towns and shellfish fisheries—this whole lifestyle on the Atlantic is totally different,” she said.
“[The oil business] forever changes the environment, it forever changes the nature of work, it forever changes how people actually live in a place,” she added.
Her personal experience led her to oppose the proposal. Watching over the details of rig operation everyday, she said, she came to know that “pollution and harming the ocean environment was part of the cost of extracting oil and gas.” She took further issue with the industry after the 2010 spill in the Gulf.
“What really put me into opposing offshore drilling was the Deepwater Horizon accident—that British Petroleum did not take responsibility immediately for what happened there, that they didn’t say in their full statement, ‘we take full responsibility.’” She knew, as a former “company man,” that those in charge of the rig always bear ultimate responsibility for what happens there. (Howell left the oil business during its 1982 downturn, though she still worked with it occasionally as a consultant.)
But not everyone who opposed Atlantic drilling shared her distaste for the oil industry. Many local residents reacted to Congress’s lifting of the oil-export ban last year. People disliked that much of the fuel procured would ultimately be burned outside American borders, she said.