For 25 years a federal moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas has protected the Atlantic coast. In that time South Carolina has seen its tourism industry grow to more than $15 billion a year. Our shore has become one of the most desirable places in the nation to live. Our fisheries provide a living for thousands of people along the coast — to say nothing of the wonderful food.

Now our whole way of life may soon be threatened. The oil and gas industries and their allies are working night and day — and very undercover — to lift this moratorium and open our coast to oil and gas exploration. And in doing so, they could be aided and abetted by none other than Charleston’s own 1st District Congressman, Henry Brown (R-S.C.).

As Brown told the Chicago Tribune last October, “If [oil and gas drilling] is OK for Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, it should be OK for other states … We are in an energy crisis and we should do everything we can to become more energy-independent — including offshore drilling.”

Curiously, he did not say that to any local media.

For years, Republicans in Congress have fought to lift the moratorium on drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). They are acting at the behest of a powerful and misleadingly named lobbying group called the Consumer Alliance for Energy Security. This “consumer” group is composed of the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Forest & Paper Association.

Currently, the Atlantic coast is protected by two drilling bans. One is an executive order first signed by George Bush I and is in place until 2012. It can be removed any time by a president’s signature. The second must be renewed annually by Congress. This is the one the oil industry lobby has targeted.

Oil industry efforts to overturn the moratorium have been extremely stealthy for a reason, said Richard Charter of the National OCS Coalition. “The oil industry is afraid it will lose control of the House in the next election. They have to move within the next 30 to 60 days. The fate of the South Carolina coast will be determined in Congress in that time.”

And what might that fate be?

According to Charter, even day-to-day offshore oil and gas drilling is a major source of water and air pollution.

Routine discharges of large volumes of spent drilling mud contributes heavy metals, benzene, toluene, and other toxic materials which accumulate in marine organisms. “Produced water,” discharged as it is pumped from below the seafloor, also contributes toxic materials to the pollution from each rig. Throughout portions of the Gulf of Mexico, these produced waters contain elevated levels of radium, resulting in a radioactive plume extending down-current of the drilling operation and contaminating seafloor sediments and marine organisms. Air emissions from the massive machinery operating on each drilling rig can be the largest single contributor to the degradation of onshore air quality in nearby shoreline communities. But regulation of this offshore pollution source lies outside of the jurisdiction of affected states and localities.

These are the dangers if everything goes well. Things went very badly at the Ixtoc I exploratory well, operated by Petroleos Mexicanos (PeMex), on June 3, 1979. The well suffered a blowout and became the largest oil spill in history, dumping 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, until it was capped ten months later.

Then there is the problem of infrastructure — enormous offshore oil derricks, underwater pipelines, and onshore terminals and refineries. Yes, if oil is found under our waters, there will be at least one refinery somewhere on the South Carolina coast. Where will it go? Mt. Pleasant? Myrtle Beach? Beaufort? The betting is it will be somewhere between Charleston and Georgetown, but do you really want to find out?

Wherever the infrastructure goes and however well it is managed, it is completely incompatible with the fragile coastal environment, the estuaries and reefs which serve as nurseries to aquatic life, said Doug Rader, of the Chapel Hill-based Environmental Defense League.

“Our golden goose here is tourism,” Rader added. “We don’t need any heavy industry to threaten our golden goose.”

If there is anything more frightening than this stealth assault on our natural environment, it’s the fact that no media outlet in South Carolina has reported this story. Three newspapers in Virginia have been covering it. The General Assembly there was scheduled for a critical vote on offshore drilling last week. National Public Radio has also covered it. But not a peep out of South Carolina’s media.

If you don’t want to see oil rigs off of the South Carolina coast, it’s time to tell Rep. Henry Brown. His Charleston office number is (888) 868-0737; his Washington office number is (202) 225-3176. Call now! Operators are standing by.

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