In early January, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a new idea into the debate over offshore drilling in the Atlantic.
A once strong supporter of exploring and drilling for oil off the East Coast, Graham said that states should have the right to opt out of any federal offshore drilling plan. He also made it clear that he would “follow” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s “lead.” McMaster is a strong opponent of exploration and drilling for oil off his state’s coast.
A few weeks later, Graham reiterated his position to a TV reporter.
“I want to make sure that the states can opt out or opt in, but we’re not going to impose our will at the federal level on the state of South Carolina,” he said.
A states’ rights position by a South Carolina politician is hardly new. It predates the Civil War.
What is new is that a prominent Republican congressman is using it to thwart the policy of a Republican president and a GOP Congress. With only Maine’s governor still actively supporting offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Congress adopting Graham’s states’ rights position would effectively kill off any federal effort to open the Atlantic or Pacific coasts to drilling.
Now a new national poll from the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation found that Graham’s states’ rights idea has the support of 71 percent of the respondents — with 86 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents and even 56 percent of Republicans agreeing. Possibly more important to GOP members of Congress, 63 percent of those living in very red districts supported states being able to opt out of a federal offshore drilling plan.
The poll also found that public support for offshore drilling is quickly eroding while opposition is up dramatically.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that only 44 percent of the public opposed more offshore drilling, while 52 percent favored it. In January of this year, Pew found those numbers reversed, with 51 percent opposed and 42 percent in favor.
Just two months later, the new Program for Public Consultation poll found public opposition to offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific at 60 percent and only 39 percent in favor. Clearly, the more the public learns about the danger that offshore drilling and seismic testing poses to pristine East and West Coast shorelines that drive state economies via tourism, commercial fishing and recreation, the more it rejects that future.
With the dramatic growth of public opposition to a federal plan to allow offshore drilling in non-Gulf coastal waters, the U.S. Department of Interior, which is expected to produce a draft plan for offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific by late 2018 or early 2019, is surely taking notice.
Pro-drilling Congressional candidates from Atlantic and Pacific Coast states facing the November elections should be re-evaluating their positions on this issue.
While no public official or candidate likes to be accused of a flip-flop, Graham’s states’ rights position offers a face-saving path forward on offshore drilling that the public enthusiastically supports, even the GOP base.
Frank Knapp Jr. is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
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