South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Marine life threatened by search for oil and gas, legal appeal says
May 18th, 2015

BY SAMMY FRETWELL

COLUMBIA, SC Blasting the ocean with seismic waves in the search for oil and gas will undoubtedly hurt marine life off the South Carolina coast – and the plan should be stopped now, according to a legal appeal filed with state regulators.

Three coastal South Carolina cities, two environmental groups and a Charleston seafood company appealed the first state permit to allow for the use of seismic testing to find oil and gas along the Palmetto State’s coast. The testing relies on shooting loud cannon blasts into the sea to locate deposits of fossil fuels, but some scientists say the practice can hurt dolphins and fish, as well as endangered sea turtles and whales.

The cities of Charleston, Folly Beach and Beaufort were joined in the appeal by the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Wildlife Federation along with Abundant Seafood, LLC.

The appeal was filed Friday with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. DHEC approved the seismic testing for Spectrum Geo Inc. about three weeks ago, saying it would have little impact on marine life.

“We are asking the DHEC board to consider the risks seismic testing poses to our marine resources,’’ the league’s Hamilton Davis said in a news release Monday. “And this request to the board represents the concerns of communities up and down the coast that are rallying against these proposals for oil and gas exploration. It’s now up to the board to protect our coast from this threat.”

DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said the agency board should decide by early June whether to hear the appeal. Beasley said in an email to The State that his agency had been authorized by the federal government to review five permit requests for the work. The appeal says there could be as many as nine requests.

Attempts to reach a spokesperson for Spectrum Geo Inc. were unsuccessful Monday.

Supporters of the search for oil and gas say the nation should look for fossil fuels in an effort to make the country less dependent on foreign energy sources. They also challenge contentions that marine life could suffer serious long-term harm, saying past research doesn’t conclude that. And they note the work would occur 50 miles offshore.

In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott favor the search for oil and gas along the coast, noting that it could bring jobs to South Carolina.

But local leaders in South Carolina are concerned about existing jobs and the environment. Overall, 18 local governments, including Charleston and Columbia, have passed resolutions against oil and gas drilling because of the potential impact on the state’s $17 billion tourism economy.

The federal government has defined an area from Virginia to Florida in which testing and drilling could occur for the first time in decades. The work involves the use of sonic cannons that send loud noises through the ocean as part of the effort to locate deposits of natural gas and oil. Survey boats towing air guns release impulses of compressed air into the water every 10 to 12 seconds, the appeal said.

Critics say the disruption in the ocean could kill or scare away marine life, including dolphins and endangered right whales. The animals’ ability to communicate could be affected, according to the appeal filed with DHEC. The federal plan to allow drilling is not final.

The appeal says DHEC staff’s approval of Spectrum Geo’s permit request, if allowed to stand, “greases the tracks’’ for oil drilling. It says that because other companies also are interested in seismic testing, DHEC should have considered the cumulative effect of approving the Spectrum request. The appeal also says DHEC didn’t hold a public hearing, even though it received 300 requests, and the agency’s decision is inconsistent with state rules that seek to protect coastal species.

A news release issued by those appealing the permit cited a recent letter by 75 leading scientists saying that the “magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain.”

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