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When Billy Keyserling scans the horizon off the coastal city of Beaufort, he doesn't see a place for oil rigs.

As mayor of the city of Beaufort, he fears the impact offshore drilling operations could have on South Carolina's coastal tourism.

He doesn't want Beaufort to develop an oil boomtown mentality, and he doesn't understand why South Carolina would threaten an actual moneymaker — tourism — to prospect for oil and natural gas riches that may never pan out.

Keyserling's not alone, but he is in the minority.

Most of South Carolina's political leadership favors offshore energy production. And a poll, paid for by oil lobbyists, says 77 percent of South Carolinians support offshore drilling.

But what concerns Keyserling and others involved in South Carolina energy policy is that South Carolina won't have a say in whether oil rigs set up off the coast.

Ultimately, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will make that decision based on the results of seismic testing that could begin as early as next year. If the government decides there is enough accessible oil and natural gas off the coast to warrant drilling, it will lease the waters to oil companies.

South Carolina's huge coastal tourism and fishing industries could be put at risk by a decision that's out of the state's hands, drilling opponents say.

Though the state would share in the oil profits, it wouldn't be able to analyze the benefits or costs drilling would have on the coastal economy or environment, and it wouldn't be able to make its own decision on whether oil companies come, said Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League.

"South Carolina policymakers, the public, won't get to see the data collected from the seismic testing, so we're completely left out of any cost-benefit analysis, any type of open dialogue about 'OK, this is what's out there, should we go and allow for oil and gas development?'" Davis said.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan said South Carolina will have input into the decision and he's heard overwhelming support for offshore exploration and production.

"I hope our Legislature will choose to support expanded energy exploration as well," Duncan said. "At the end of the day, achieving energy independence is in the national interest and in South Carolina's best interest."

Other key policymakers in South Carolina have thrown their support behind the industry. Gov. Nikki Haley has joined a coalition of coastal-state governors in favor of offshore drilling. And Duncan, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott have authored pro-drilling bills in Congress.

With the government opening up Atlantic coastal waters for testing for the first time since the 1980s, advocates say now is the time to find out once-and-for-all whether readily accessible oil exists there.

"How do we know, because we're relying on 30-year-old technology," Duncan said. "Until we actually do some 21st century technology seismic work out there, how do we know?

"I want to take that next step to see what might be out there," he said.

Environmental impact

Those concerned about the impact oil rigs could have on the coast don't just fear the big disasters like the Gulf's Deepwater Horizon leak in 2010.

It's the day-to-day leaks and spills from the oil-boom infrastructure that could forever change the beaches and coastal wetlands and cost tourism, said Chris Descherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston.

"Just the everyday leakage associated with the operations of those types of facilities would, in our view, change the character of the coast," he said.

This month, the Southern Environmental Law Center submitted a letter of opposition to the Department of Interior on behalf of 27 Southeastern groups opposed to the offshore industry.

"I've been to beaches on the Gulf Coast where you walk on the beach and there's tar balls, but we don't have that on the Atlantic Coast, and that's part of what makes it special," he said.

Keyserling said there's no room for the oil companies in scenic, small-town Beaufort.

"I think it is a huge threat without a whole lot of justification," Keyserling said. "What is the impact to tourism of oil rigs? What is the impact on tourism of an accident, God forbid? And why is it so necessary when we're approaching energy independence?"

Duncan said he believes oil and gas can co-exist with coastal fishing and tourism.

The oil rigs would be beyond sight lines from the beach — 75 to 100 miles offshore, he said — but would mostly operate in relatively shallow waters off the South Carolina coast, as opposed to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon operation in the Gulf, where the well was located 5,000 feet below the surface.

Since 2010, two well-containment companies have developed technology that could quickly cap and contain a well blowout to prevent another Deepwater Horizon-scale disaster, said Erik Milito, a spokesman for the oil lobbyist American Petroleum Institute.

Marine life

Every step in the search for offshore oil comes with its own set of concerns.

Environmentalists warn that the seismic surveys companies may conduct starting next year could kill or injure thousands of whales, dolphins and other marine life, while proponents such as Duncan say seismic testing has been going on for decades off the U.S. coast with no repercussions.

Companies use air guns, which environmentalists call sonic cannons, to shoot sound waves that penetrate the ocean floor and create an image that geologists can use to map likely oil and gas deposits.

The seismic tests are much more accurate now — about 70 percent — than in the late 1980s when tests were about 30 percent correct, said James Knapp, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at the University of South Carolina who explored for oil for Shell in the Gulf of Mexico from 1988-1991.

The blasts can cause deafness, and since whales and dolphins use hearing to communicate and search for food, it could lead to their deaths, according to non-profit environmental group Oceana.

Seismic testing could affect up to 138,500 marine mammals in the Atlantic, but the effect for most marine mammals would be avoidance of the testing areas or feeding disruption, not hearing loss, according to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Oceana points to unexplained incidents of stranded mammals in Africa after seismic work. And a study in Australia showed fishermen reported lower fish catches following seismic work. But proof that air guns are to blame has been more difficult to document.

"There hasn't been a single verifiable instance where a marine mammal has been harmed through seismic work," Duncan said.

Still, in response to the concern, BOEM added new standards to observe whether whales and dolphins are swimming nearby and to send out weaker signals before powering up to full strength blasts.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council hasn't yet weighed in but is aware of the issue and is planning to revise its energy policy this year in light of the renewed focus on offshore energy, said spokeswoman Kim Iverson.

The council, which manages grouper and snapper habitats, has named a West Virginia-sized swath of deep water coral reef that extends from South Carolina to Florida a habitat of particular concern, she said. The reef overlaps much of the South Atlantic oil drilling study area.

Nine companies have filed permit requests to survey the Atlantic waters, Milito said.

Oil's impact

Michael Colgan, a geologist at the College of Charleston, spends his days studying the ocean floor, its geology and coral reefs.

He said oil surveys might find oil, but they won't find it off South Carolina's coast.

"They can explore all they want, but the geology off our coast doesn't yield oil," Colgan said.

The Atlantic basins off the South Carolina coast aren't deep enough to create the pressure and heat needed to change organic material to oil, Colgan said.

Even if it is there, it won't be in large enough quantity to attract oil companies to build the infrastructure needed to extract and transport it elsewhere, he said.

Oil companies drilled 51 test wells off the East Coast in the mid-'80s before Congress put a moratorium on Atlantic oil exploration. Based on those tests, BOEM estimates 4.72 billion barrels of oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath coastal waters.

If the Atlantic oil and gas reserves match the Gulf's, those numbers could be extreme underestimates, Milito said.

Before oil companies began to operate in the Gulf, they estimated they could extract seven-to-nine billion barrels of oil, he said.

"Now we know there's at least 45 billion barrels of oil out there, and that's because we went to that area and we explored," Milito said.

USC's Knapp testified before Congress in January that "these estimates are undoubtedly conservative."

"We need to get out there, collect the new surveys and evaluate those," Knapp told The Greenville News. "Maybe the conclusion is there's not an economically viable resource. I tend to doubt that."

There's a chicken-and-the-egg scenario to the seismic surveys, Knapp said. While the surveys could be approved to start soon, the oil companies don't want to pay millions of dollars to collect the data unless they know there's a payoff in the end.

That's why the industry wants Atlantic drilling allowed as soon as 2017.

And South Carolina congressmen are leading the charge.

Graham, Scott and Duncan have each introduced bills to allow Atlantic drilling in the next five-year plan, which starts in 2017.

The oil industry would add 11,000 jobs in oil-related fields to South Carolina by 2035 if Atlantic oil and natural gas resources are developed, according to American Petroleum Institute. That's the second-highest of any Atlantic state.

Those jobs would include rig operators, support personnel, train operators, truckers and others, Milito said.

South Carolina also would share in the oil revenue much like Gulf states do, he said.

That recurring long-term source of income would meet the state's looming infrastructure needs, Duncan said.

Milito called it unlikely an oil refinery would build in South Carolina, but said the state would develop an oil transfer network to bring resources to existing refineries.

Oil rigs and resources benefit Big Oil, but they don't serve the local purpose, said Beaufort's Keyserling.

"If I'm a tourist and I'm going to a beach and I'm taking my family in the water, it can be the safest operation in the world, but would I take my kids out in the water?" Keyserling said. "I doubt it."

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