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House passes SC Rep. Joe Cunningham’s bill to ban offshore drilling, seismic testing

A bill banning offshore drilling and seismic testing off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts passed the House of Representatives Wednesday — but mainly along party lines — as only a handful of Republicans signed on.

While the measure faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate, it was seen as a legislative success for its author, first-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston.

The bipartisan Coastal Marine and Economies Protection Act calls for a permanent and complete moratorium on offshore drilling along the nation’s eastern and western coasts.

An amendment added to the bill by U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Michigan, would extend the ban to seismic testing, as well.

Cunningham’s bill would reinstate stricter oil and gas drilling rules that were originally established under the Obama administration after the deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon 4.9-million barrel oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The legislation is one of three bills the House is taking up this week that would limit offshore drilling. The two other measures seek to block oil and gas exploration in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Cunningham said of offshore drilling. “This bill is good for business and it’s good for the environment. If folks want to call themselves ‘good conservatives’ then you have to be a good conservative on the environment, too.”

Hours of partisan debate over the bills ensued for much of Wednesday afternoon. Republicans argued the ban could increase the average price of gasoline for Americans and hurt the nation’s move toward energy independence.

U.S. Rep. Garet Graves, R-Louisiana, proposed a motion to have the bill take effect only after President Donald Trump determined the bans would not increase the average price of gasoline in the United States.

Cunningham, who made banning offshore drilling the centerpiece of his 2018 congressional campaign, pushed back on the House floor.

“This motion to recommit wants to cede more power to our president, but I believe in the Constitution and I believe in the separate but equal branches of government as our founding fathers intended,” said Cunningham.

He later turned to Graves and asked, “Who did you come here to serve?”

The motion to recommit failed and the bill passed along mostly party lines on a 238-189 vote. Twelve Republicans voted in its favor.

House Majority Whip U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, South Carolina’s only other Democrat in Congress, was absent from the vote but supports the bill, his office said.

Despite Cunningham proclaiming the drilling issue is nonpartisan, none of the five Republicans in South Carolina’s congressional delegation voted for his bill, including U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, seat of the state’s Grand Strand beach tourism draw.

A bill that would extend an offshore drilling moratorium in Florida also passed, but it had the support of 22 Republicans.

In an emailed statement after the vote on Cunningham’s bill, Rice said he remains opposed to offshore drilling and seismic testing off South Carolina’s coast but he could not support Cunningham’s bill as it is too strict.

“This legislation goes unreasonably far by instituting a federal government mandated permanent moratorium on offshore development across the country, blatantly disregarding states’ established role in this process,” Rice said.

He added, “Coastal South Carolinians deserve real solutions to this issue, not legislation so extreme and so flawed that President Trump has already promised a veto.”

Cunningham and Rice are the only South Carolina congressmen who represent tourist-dependent beach communities along the Palmetto State’s 187-mile coastline.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, had announced his opposition to all three of the offshore drilling measures on Monday, two days before they were scheduled to come up for a vote.

“U.S. energy exploration and production lowers electric costs for consumers, provides good paying jobs, safeguards national security and keeps our country as a global energy leader,” Duncan said. “These proposals would halt all the progress made over the last two and a half years and push us towards foreign sources of energy.”

A February 2019 poll by Winthrop University, the latest statewide polling available on the issue, found a majority of South Carolinians — 56 percent — oppose oil drilling off the state’s coast.

The same survey of approximately 1,000 state residents found 61 percent of respondents also oppose seismic blast testing for oil and gas off the state’s coast.

In January 2018, the Trump administration proposed to vastly expand offshore drilling to virtually all waters from the Atlantic to the Arctic oceans — including off of South Carolina — and the Pacific Coast by opening for review a new five-year plan to lease those areas for oil and gas exploration.

The move prompted governors in at least 17 coastal states, including South Carolina, to sue the Trump administration. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Trump ally, opposes offshore drilling here.

On Thursday, the House takes up the final bill in the offshore drilling package, with a vote on a bill to block oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A federal judge ruled in May that Trump had exceeded his authority when he ordered that the Arctic and parts of the Atlantic be opened to oil and gas development.


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