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Monday May 21st, 2018 8:57AM

Lawmakers seek firmer stance against drilling off Georgia

By The Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — While the governor sticks to cautious, measured responses to President Donald Trump's proposal to expand oil drilling into waters off Georgia and its coastal neighbors, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wants the Georgia legislature to formally denounce the energy plan as a threat to tourism and fishing.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, serving his last year in office, stands alone among governors of 22 coastal U.S. states in that he's refrained from taking a firm stand for or against Trump's plan to let private companies drill in federal waters currently off-limits to oil exploration.

Hoping to fill the political vacuum, a small group of Democratic and Republican legislators are pushing resolutions in the state House and Senate that would flat out declare opposition to drilling. They argue it would risk fouling Georgia's pristine salt marshes, threaten endangered right whales that give birth off Georgia and potentially devastate local economies.

Anti-drilling Democrats have been joined in sponsoring the proposals by at least six GOP lawmakers. One of them is Republican Rep. Jesse Petrea of Savannah, who said he's a big supporter of "fracking and drilling" in the U.S. But he also noted Georgia's 100-mile (160 kilometer) coast is home to nearly one-third of the remaining salt marshes on the East Coast. The state's chain of barrier islands remains largely undeveloped, with vast acreage under federal and state protection.

"I just don't think the risks are worth it to drill off the Georgia coast," Petrea said.

The five-year plan announced by the Trump administration in January would expand offshore oil drilling from the Atlantic to the Arctic and Pacific oceans, including waters off more than a dozen states where drilling is now blocked.

The plan has drawn bipartisan opposition from 15 governors of coastal states, while six say they support drilling. On the East Coast, only GOP Gov. Paul LePage of Maine has embraced drilling.

That leaves Deal as the only coastal governor still hedging.

Finishing his second term as governor, Deal has said he's concerned that tourism might suffer if drilling was allowed off Georgia's "pristine coast." But he's stopped short of saying he's opposed.

"I doubt that the coastline of the state of Georgia would be a profitable place for offshore drilling," Deal said recently. "And I think if it is considered to be so, we need to have a lot of discussions about that."

The lawmakers' proposed resolutions to oppose drilling await action by legislative committees. It's unclear how they will fare in the Republican-controlled legislature. Georgia voters favored Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

The resolutions emphasize the economic blow an oil spill could inflict on Georgia. The state agency that promotes tourism estimates travelers to the Georgia coast had a nearly $2.4 billion economic impact in 2016. Commercial fishermen caught $11.5 million worth of shrimp and other seafood off Georgia that same year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Sponsors also cited some personal reasons. GOP Rep. Ron Stephens noted his Savannah home sits on the water. Rep. Don Hogan, a Republican from St. Simons Island, said he owns commercial buildings near the island's pier and lighthouse. His tenants include an ice cream shop, a restaurant and a bike shop that all depend on tourists.

Not all coastal lawmakers oppose Trump's drilling plan.

GOP Rep. Jason Spencer of Woodbine, located in coastal Camden County, said he supports taking an inventory of oil and gas resources off Georgia's coast, and he's confident that technological safeguards would prevent environmental harm.

"Let's not forget what it was like when gas was $4 a gallon," Spencer said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

The most outspoken critics of offshore drilling in Georgia so far have been local officials. At least seven coastal cities have adopted anti-drilling resolutions including Savannah, Brunswick and Tybee Island, home to Georgia's largest public beach.

"I think we should as a state say that we don't want this," said Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman, a Republican.

Buelterman said he hopes Deal will join Georgia's immediate coastal neighbors in asking the Trump administration to exempt their states from the drilling plan. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has already been promised an exemption. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster wants one, too. Deal has said it would be "premature" to request that for Georgia.

"I've been disappointed," said state Sen. Steve Henson of Stone Mountain, the chamber's Democratic leader and a sponsor of the anti-drilling resolution. "I think he could take a stronger stance as many other governors, Democrats and Republicans, have taken to protect the coast."

___

Rico reported from Atlanta.

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