Three years ago, SCELP and our allies celebrated the withdrawal of the Atlantic from the five-year plan for offshore drilling, which resulted in the denial of all pending permits to conduct seismic airgun surveying in the Atlantic. The seismic companies appealed that decision and SCELP, representing BAPAC, moved to intervene and defend our coast against harmful seismic airguns.
This victory was short-lived, as the Trump administration introduced an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and ordered the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) to reconsider the Atlantic for both seismic and drilling offshore. As a result, BOEM remanded the pending seismic permits to itself and resumed its review process.
In the summer of 2017 five draft incidental harassment authorizations (IHAs) were proposed for seismic companies to conduct airgun surveys in the Atlantic. SCELP commented in opposition to these authorizations, which would allow seismic airgun arrays to be dragged across the Atlantic, as close as three miles offshore, making blasting sounds every ten seconds for months on end.
Following the issuance of final IHAs, which finally occurred on November 30, 2018, SCELP filed a federal lawsuit challenging the harms that seismic would cause to our environment and coastal economy.
Seismic is disastrous at all levels
Seismic airgun surveying is done in preparation for offshore oil and gas drilling, which is unanimously opposed by every coastal municipality in South Carolina. Seismic airguns are drug by boats in large arrays along the surface of the ocean. The airguns blast sound downward at 16,000 decibels, every ten seconds, twenty-four hours a day. The blasting area will be offshore from Delaware to Florida, and last for about a year. Seismic airgun surveying has been shown to injure and drive away marine life, from destroying microscopic zooplankton at the base of the oceanic food chain to harassing the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.
South to North, these are the municipalities taking action, along with the SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce, all represented pro bono by SCELP: Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Port Royal, Beaufort, Edisto Beach, Seabrook Island, Kiawah Island, Folly Beach, James Island, Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Awendaw, Pawleys Island, Briarcliffe Acres, North Myrtle Beach.
SCELP's lawsuit was filed on December 11, 2018 in Federal District Court in Charleston, SC, contesting the validity of authorizations to harass hundreds of thousands of marine mammals issued by National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”). The authorizations were wrongly issued, according to the complaint, because they violate multiple federal statutes, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Importantly, NMFS failed to consider the cumulative impacts of allowing an unprecedented amount of seismic airgun surveying to be conducted along in the Atlantic. Five surveying companies will blast and reblast much of the same area, in turn, as they each gather their own proprietary data to be sold to big oil companies in anticipation of offshore drilling.
On January 3, 2020, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel granted a number of our requests to complete the administrative record. For one, he ordered NMFS to provide within 45 days all memos, emails and attachments surrounding its decision to issue IHAs to the five seismic companies. He also ordered the government to submit a log listing all the documents that the agency is withholding under a claim of "privilege."
"To exclude these documents would, in effect, be creating an inaccurate record for the Court’s ultimate reviews," Judge Gergel wrote.
This ruling was a great win for our legal battle as these documents will give us better insight into the agency's decision to issue the IHAs.
On February 18, 2020, Judge Gergel denied the Department of the Interior's motion to dismiss our lawsuit. As our lawsuit to block offshore drilling continues, the judge's decision allows additional claim that President Trump's Executive Order allowing leasing in the Southeast Atlantic is illegal.
On October 6, 2020, Judge Gergel issued a Rubin Order, or a conditional dismissal, of the federal seismic litigation following a concession from the Federal Defendants that the IHAs allowing seismic blasting in the Atlantic will expire at the end of November and cannot be extended, renewed or reissued, and a concession from the seismic companies that they cannot begin surverying prior to the expiration. As a result of these admissions, the five companies granted these permissions would have to completely restart the months-long permit application process, including the opportunity for public notice and comment.
Read our press release about the judge's decision.