South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Beaufort County leaders say this plan is bad for our coast. They might go to court.
January 9th, 2018

By Stephen Fastenau, The Beaufort Gazette

Beaufort and Port Royal are prepared to issue a quick response to Trump administration plans to expand offshore oil and gas exploration off the S.C. coast: See you in court.

The city and town will consider joining Charleston and at least one other coastal municipality in a lawsuit to block federal permits allowing seismic testing off the East Coast. Attorneys for the S.C. Environmental Law Project would file the suit in federal court, at no cost to the city.

The U.S. Department of Interior announced a plan last week for a new five-year oil and gas leasing program that would open large areas of federal waters to seismic testing and drilling from 2019-2024, including in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans .

Under former President Barack Obama, the Atlantic Ocean had been removed from oil and gas exploration plans and pending permits were denied. But President Trump issued an executive order in April directing the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to work on a new plan opening the Atlantic to the possibility of drilling.

Now the bureau is again considering the permits. In addition to seismic testing such testing.

“One thing we are fairly confident of is they are going to be issued, and it will be relatively soon,” S.C. Environmental Law Project executive director Amy Armstrong said.

Beaufort and Charleston had previously worked with the environmental group to oppose state decisions that laid early groundwork for seismic testing permits.

A previous campaign ahead of the Obama administration’s decisions included cities and towns along coast passing resolutions in opposition to drilling and writing federal officials.

Those efforts were “softball” tactics, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said in asking other municipalities to support the potential lawsuit.

“We are now in a hardball game,” Keyserling wrote in a letter this week to other municipalities. “... I am writing to urge you to join the City of Beaufort and others in taking this action, as I believe this new approach has more ‘bite,’ will grab more attention from decision makers and cannot be stuffed in a file cabinet.”

A 60-day comment period on the five-year leasing proposal started Monday.

“Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks,” U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a news release Jan. 4. “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance."

Six permits to conduct seismic testing in federal waters off the S.C. coast are back on the table.

The pending permits prompted Keyserling to ask coastal municipalities to join the lawsuit. He has organized a conference call for interested public officials Friday.

Beaufort City Council considered a first vote to join a potential lawsuit Tuesday. Charleston council members were expected to do the same, Armstrong said.

Port Royal Town Council will take up the lawsuit at its Wednesday meeting.

Hilton Head Island and Bluffton didn’t have the legal challenge on this week’s agendas. But Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett opposed oil and gas exploration and drilling in an op-ed published in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Monday.

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