South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Beaufort continues battle against offshore seismic testing for oil
July 8th, 2015

BY STEPHEN FASTENAU

The city of Beaufort's fight to prevent offshore oil exploration and drilling on the South Carolina coast will go a step further.

Beaufort will ask the S.C. Administrative Law Court to step in on a case involving a federal permit application to begin seismic testing. The court hears cases involving disputes with actions or proposed actions of certain state agencies.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control staff in May found a federal application for Spectrum Geo Inc. to begin seismic testing to be consistent with the S.C. Coastal Zone Management Program. Beaufort, Charleston, Folly Beach and conservation groups opposed to the testing asked DHEC's board to review the decision.

That request was denied last month.

Now Beaufort will request a contested-case hearing in Administrative Law Court, just ahead of Monday's deadline to file an appeal.

The S.C. Environmental Law Project is drafting the requests on behalf of the city, at no cost to Beaufort, Mayor Billy Keyserling said. The other municipalities have not yet joined the request.

The mayor and City Council voted last week to join the request for a hearing. Numerous municipalities, including Beaufort, Hilton Head Island and Port Royal, have passed resolutions opposing exploration and drilling after the federal government opened the south Atlantic Ocean to testing last year.

Keyserling said the testing would affect marine life and hurt the city's tourism economy. He pointed to critics who have said there is not enough oil to make drilling worth the perceived risk.

"If nothing else, you hold them up, so they understand people are opposed to it," Keyserling said.

During the requested hearing, which could be up to a year away, attorneys would produce evidence and testimony on whether DHEC's decision met legal requirements.

DHEC, in finding Spectrum Geo's proposal consistent with guidelines, asked the company to avoid testing during the most productive time for sea turtles, from April to early September; to not test within about 45 miles of the state's coast; and that Spectrum work with state and federal agencies to minimize effects to key fisheries.

Spectrum agreed, according to a letter from DHEC to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which will make the final decision on the permit.

The Law Project's request for board review says the proposed testing runs afoul of the management program, citing "significant adverse impacts."

Seismic testing uses loud blasts of sound from airguns to gather data about what oil reserves might be under the ocean floor.

The sounds are at "the same low frequency sea turtles and marine life use to communicate, which is why it's a concern," said Law Project director and general counsel Amy Armstrong. "Because it disrupts their migration patterns; it disrupts their breeding; it disrupts raising young.

"They are social creatures, so it disrupts their ability to communicate and do all the things that they would normally be doing."

Spectrum said its design protects wildlife, reefs and fisheries, and that requiring 60 kilometers between ships will create a corridor for animals to pass without hearing the airgun's noise. DHEC board member Clarence Batts said last month the work had been done for years "without any sort of detriment to marine life," according to The (Columbia) State newspaper.

DHEC has so far found three permit requests to conduct seismic testing consistent with the state's management program. The agency will not review six other federal permit applications, because they do not affect the South Carolina coast, DHEC spokeswoman Cassie Harris said.

The municipalities and conservation groups requested board review of all three approved applications. The board has so far denied one.

Armstrong said her organization would probably move to consolidate the cases.

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