South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Serious Consideration of Impacts Needed in Applications for Seismic Testing in SC
Posted: March 4, 2015

After months of discussion and preparation, it is finally time for action against offshore drilling. The first DHEC permit application to conduct seismic testing off the coast of South Carolina was submitted in February. Unfortunately, this is just the first in a series of these permit applications that we can expect from other companies to conduct the same tests. The fact that so many companies are applying for the same permits, to conduct the same surveys, in the same area, epitomizes this industry’s disregard for outside interests. These companies will not share their information amongst each other, so each interested in leasing in the Atlantic wants to have its own studies done, just to arrive at the same results. This redundancy could amount to a waste of time, effort, and money, were it not for the ongoing disturbances caused by the method of testing which will impact local economies, wildlife and citizens. While some impacts were outlined in the Spectrum Geo Inc. permit application, many others were overlooked or ignored.

Spectrum intends to conduct testing up to 3 miles off the coast, thereby excluding only state waters from the survey area. And another seismic permit currently pending before DHEC proposes testing to start at 25 miles offshore. This is concerning and confusing since the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM), the regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling, has instated a 50 mile buffer zone off the Atlantic Coast where no leasing or drilling will be allowed. Conducting testing in this restricted buffer zone is not economically responsible, nor legally permissible. The only reason to conduct testing in this area, would be to uncover oil and gas reserves in the restricted area in order to argue that the buffer zone should be eliminated, against the federal government’s mandate and the interest of the state.

BOEM documents explain that the buffer zone is intended to “minimize potential impacts on the coastal zone and protected species” that will result from drilling activity. Seismic testing impacts many of the same species and coastal zone activities, yet Spectrum proposes to conduct 47 miles of unnecessary testing, risking the very resources the buffer was designed to protect.

The concerns over wildlife have been discussed in great detail in the months leading up to the submission of these seismic testing permits. Though reports may vary on the extent to which different animals are affected, impacts have been widely observed. Spectrum’s application included a few mitigation measures aimed at reducing the impacts on marine mammals and sea turtles that the Atlantic Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement warned were vulnerable to damage from the survey activity. However, the mitigation measures are far from sufficient and in some cases illogical. For example, the company proposed to reduce disturbance to annual nesting habits of sea turtles by discontinuing testing during nesting season, but only in Brevard County, Florida. Not only is this measure misplaced on a South Carolina permit application, but it leaves virtually unprotected the thousands of turtles that nest here each year, including our state reptile, the loggerhead. Instead, these survey companies need to commit to thorough, effective protection measures, such as using species observation methods above and below water simultaneously rather than alternatively, which will account for behavioral changes and different species reacting in different ways to seismic airguns.

Again and again, Spectrum made unsubstantiated claims that the impacts from the proposed testing would be minimal due to its temporary nature. They conceded fish avoid seismic airguns, but assured fishermen should not feel the impacts for it would only last a few days. They admitted areas will be blocked off to other coastal industries, but since only for a few hours or sometimes days, concluded that no economic impacts were expected. Further, they anticipated any behavioral impacts to sea turtles will be short lived, and that marine mammals can be expected to escape most impacts by traveling to less noisy waters. If these testing permits are indeed approved, the impacts will be far from temporary, potentially lasting for over a year. Some testing could even be simultaneous, putting more strain on our coastal economies and further threatening our marine animals and resources.

Even more concerning than their flawed conclusions on direct impacts, these applications lack any examination of the indirect and cumulative impacts from seismic testing, which are certain to follow. Of course the most obvious is that of the drilling itself, which is the expressed purpose of the study, yet the applications fail to explore the potential impacts. Without proper consideration of this massive indirect impact, we can only assume that anywhere that is subjected to testing is subsequently available for leasing. Once the tests are conducted it will be too late for us to defend areas we want shielded from drilling, we will only be able to hope that they are not home to appealing reserves, without knowing for certain. A thorough exploration of the cumulative and indirect impacts that will result from the proposed testing, reveals that all of the waters off of South Carolina are too vulnerable and too valuable to be subjected to such violent and unpredictable processes.

While our state maintains control over our oceans, we must utilize this crucial step in the process to protect our most valuable resource to the fullest extent possible. Any areas necessarily shielded from drilling should also be shielded from testing. Only the oil and gas companies stand to benefit from this testing. Every inch of ocean that is subjected to seismic testing will be experiencing the first disturbance in a possibly indefinite amount of disturbances if the results are financially appealing. And since the results will not be available to the public or the state, it is critical that we consider the implications of this testing and its results before the matter is out of our hands.

The comment period on the Spectrum Geo Inc. permit application has been extended on this matter to March 21st, 2015, comments can be submitted to joynercm@dhec.sc.gov The permit can be viewed at: http://www.scdhec.gov/Apps/Environment/PublicNotices/SearchAndDisplay/Display/1464