Offshore Drilling

The Brown Pelican, a South Carolina icon, is one of many coastal birds whose populations could be jeopardized by an oil spill off our coast. Photo: Susan Dimock

Check with either an ecologist or an economist about offshore drilling, and you’ll find that their views dovetail perfectly:  it’s a bad bargain for South Carolina.

Threat to Birds

During the big Gulf oil spill in 2010, more than a quarter-million Laughing Gulls were killed (36 percent of those in the northern Gulf).  So were 15 percent of Royal Terns and 12 percent of Brown Pelicans.  Altogether, about one million birds died in the acute phase of the spill.

Today, studies show ongoing problems with the livers and lungs of Gulf birds.  Also, the offspring of oiled birds have high rates of mutation. 

Studies show, too, that birds are malnourished where cleanup efforts removed food sources, and disoriented by chemicals in the oil – which is still washing up seven years later.  For migratory birds, malnourishment or disorientation is often fatal.

Birds are so tricky to study, and the scale of the damage is so large, that it’s not possible to make clear predictions about the impact on their populations.  We do know that Gulf dolphins aren’t expected to recover for about forty years.

Sobering, right?  But if you think it’s disturbing to talk to an ecologist about offshore drilling, try talking with an economist. 

Threat to Tourism

The oil industry offers rosy projections for drilling off the South Carolina coast.  Annual investment will supposedly rise to $2.7 billion over 20 years, with annual income rising to about $1 billion.  Note, though, that this income is just for peak years.  And it’s just while the oil lasts – about a decade according to the same industry study.

But those amounts are peanuts compared to our current coastal tourism revenues of $8 billion per year.  And oil doesn’t mix with tourism.  A study of Gulf counties with and without pipelines, refineries, etc. found that the presence of ugly oil infrastructure cuts per-capita tourism dollars in half.  

Here’s something else to consider.  In the two years after the Gulf spill, more than $6 billion was paid for damages to tourism-related businesses.  Ecological damage was valued at $17.2 billion. 

If you think a spill couldn’t happen here, think again.  There were more than 700 spills in U.S. waters from 2001 to 2015.  In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused 11 million gallons to spill near the Gulf coast – the same amount as the Exxon Valdez spilled in Alaska.  And storms in the South Atlantic are becoming more frequent and more intense. 

Thank Our Leaders!

Fortunately, South Carolina has many public officials who oppose or at least seriously question offshore drilling.   They include Governor Henry McMaster, U.S. Representatives Mark Sanford, James Clyburn, and Tom Rice, and dozens of city and county officials. 

Please take a moment to send your thanks to the Governor, as well as your U.S. Representative if you live in Sanford, Clyburn, or Rice’s district.

Staff contact:  Nolan Schillerstrom, nschillerstrom@audubon.org