On June 19, South Carolina Congressman Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-Charleston) introduced and passed two amendments to HR 3055, known as the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which could effectively halt exploration for oil off the South Carolina coast as well as the coastlines of the entire country.
“Most would agree that the amount of oil off the coast of South Carolina is minimal and far less than the amount of revenue that the State brings in from tourism, recreation, and commercial fishing,” Cunningham said. “Put simply, the people of the Lowcountry understand that the risk isn’t worth the reward.
“Or as my grandmother said, ‘the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”
The appropriations bill being amended allocates funding for a variety of agencies and organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. It is these two agencies that are responsible for approving or denying seismic testing off the U.S. coast. Over 25 states, towns and conservation and business groups are currently challenging five permits for seismic testing issued by NOAA. Additionally, NOAA and BOEM are considering a sixth permit from WesternGeco currently in the public comment phase.
Amendment 406, one of the two Cunningham amendments, removes all funding in the next fiscal year for NOAA to approve seismic air gun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean and prevents NOAA from approving any new applications. The approvals, called Incidental Harassment Authorizations, provide permission to harm marine life such as whales through seismic air gun blasting. The seismic tests are designed to identify potential oil reserves in the ocean floor and produce sounds louder than any man-made noise except military-grade explosives at rates up to every 10-15 seconds for months at a time, according to Cunningham.
While seismic blasting does nothing more than provide data regarding the ocean floor, it is commonly associated with oil and gas drilling.
“In addition to being harmful in its own right,” Cunningham said. “Seismic blasting is a key step towards this administration’s ultimate goal: bringing drilling rigs to the South Carolina coast and elsewhere up and down the Atlantic seaboard.”
Cunningham also introduced amendment 450, which basically restricts BOEM from approving seismic blasting in the same way the other amendment restricts NOAA.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R- Arizona) spoke in opposition to amendment 450. He said the United States should have a proper accounting of the nation’s resources including oil and gas reserves in the ocean. He suggested voting in favor of Cunningham’s amendment was the same as voting in favor of importing energy and funding countries like Russia.
The vast majority of oil imported to the U.S. comes from Canada (43%) followed by Saudi Arabia (9%) and Mexico (7%), according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Russia exports about the same amount of oil to the United States as Columbia or Nigeria.
Cunningham said the purpose of seismic blasting is clearly to sell oil drilling operations to the highest bidder.
Voting generally occurred along party lines with most Democrats in favor and most Republicans opposing the measures to stop seismic blasting. Amendment 406 passed with a voice vote. Cunningham called for a recorded vote on the second measure.
Rep. Tom Rice of District 7 was the only S.C. Republican representative to join Cunningham in supporting the amendment. He has also co-sponsored an amendment that prohibits fiscal year 2020 funds from being used by the Department of Interior to conduct oil and gas leasing in the Atlantic.
Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina) also supported the amendment which passed by a 245-187 margin. South Carolina Republican Representatives who voted against that amendment consisted of Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Ralph Norman and William Timmons.
“Our beaches, our economy is not for sale,” Cunningham said during the vote.
Cunningham has also authored HR 1941 known as the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act which prohibits the leasing of any tract for oil and gas preleasing in the Atlantic or Pacific Outer Continental Shelf planning areas. That legislation made out of Committee on June 19.