South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Offshore seismic testing push continues despite oil drilling ban
March 29th, 2016

By Bo Petersen

Conservation groups, fresh off celebrating what they championed as a decisive victory for coastal residents and grassroots activists, are launching a second round of opposition. The groups had thought companies might drop their bids after the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on March 16 removed the Southeast coast from a proposed final ruling on leasing new areas for the work.

None of three companies approved by South Carolina to do seismic testing offshore for oil and natural gas have withdrawn applications, despite the recent federal decision not to allow drilling for it here. A spokeswoman for the exploration industry’s International Association of Geophysical Contractors said the applicants will continue working through the process to get the permits from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The process includes OKs from individual states.

“The exclusion of the acreage from the proposed final program does not diminish or eliminate the need for new geophysical data for the area — acquired and processed using the latest technology — to better define the resource potential. The estimates of the resource potential is still based on 30-plus-year-old data,” said spokeswoman Gail Adams-Jackson.

Conservationists said any potential resource wouldn’t be worth as much as the ecological, recreational and tourism value of the coast.

Seismic testing involves high-decibel blasts from air guns underwater that sound every 16 seconds or so. The exploration work also could include drilling test wells.

“The sustained blasts ... damage the hearing of marine mammals and disrupts feeding and mating behavior of mammals and fish,” said Katie Zimmerman, Coastal Conservation League air, water and public health program director. “Communities up and down the coast have successfully said no to offshore drilling, and the Obama administration heeded our request based on sound science and policy.”

The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people appear to largely support curbing exploration to protect dolphins, whales, sea turtles and other marine life, as well as a billion-dollar tourism economy. More than 100 coastal governments came out against the testing and drilling, along with hundreds of businesses and business groups. Resident opposition coalesced to eventually number in the tens of thousands in South Carolina alone.

Most state political figures and others support exploring for the potential economic benefits, even though BOEM has concluded that the work “may result in low immediate economic benefits for nearby communities.”

Challenges to the three S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control approvals were made in the S.C. Administrative Law Court before the federal decision March 16 and are continuing, said attorney Amy Armstrong, of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, Oceana and other groups are continuing to press decision-makers to discourage the permits being granted.

“This is a prelude to drilling. What we know is the industry is interested in getting out there and making the case for drilling,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the law center. Citing the widespread community opposition, she said, “It doesn’t matter how much oil is out there. The beaches are worth so much more.”

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