South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Offshore drilling: Opposition ramps up after approvals point to exploration
December 6th, 2018

By Charles Swenson

Attorneys for 16 coastal communities, including the town of Pawleys Island, expect to file suit next week in federal court to challenge an authorization that will allow oil and gas exploration off the South Carolina coast. “We’ve basically been waiting quite a long time for a decision,” said Amy Armstrong, chief counsel for the S.C. Environmental Law Project. The municipalities agreed to the litigation in advance “so we could move quickly.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service last week approved “incidental harassment authorizations” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to five firms that will conduct seismic tests to determine the likelihood that areas on the Outer Continental Shelf contain oil and natural gas. Those tests, which use airgun arrays, could begin as early as February.

The authorizations are required before the actual testing is approved by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “The indications are that will happen soon,” said Peg Howell, a leader of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, which has led the opposition to oil and gas drilling in the state. Despite gathering support from coastal communities and Gov. Henry McMaster, the group, known as SODA, has been preparing for approval of testing by the federal government.

The seismic testing applications were submitted in 2015, then put on hold when the Obama administration decided to keep the Outer Continental Shelf closed to drilling. President Trump restarted the process through an executive order last year.

In issuing its authorization, the fisheries service determined that the tests will have a “negligible impact” on the species and stocks, though it acknowledged that it will still have an impact on marine mammal breeding and migration.

Seismic tests are typically done with an array of 18 compressed air guns that are fired every 10 seconds as they are towed behind a ship. The echo is monitored and the data is used to create maps of the area below the sea floor. The operations continue 24 hours a day. The duration of the tests by the five companies ranges from 70 and 308 days.

Armstrong said the federal agency failed to account for the cumulative effects of the air guns from five firms covering an area between Chesapeake Bay and northern Florida. “There wasn’t consideration of five different activities that are overlapping,” she said. “They didn’t look at the combined effect of multiple testing on these marine species that they allow to be harassed.”

The agency also failed to look at reasonable alternatives, as required by the law, Armstrong said. Although there are restrictions on testing to mitigate the impact on migrating and breeding species, “they didn’t look at reducing the authorizations or dividing the area among the five companies,” she said.

“It’s unprecedented to allow that much seismic at one time,” Howell, a former petroleum engineer who worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, said.

Although observers are required to watch for marine mammals during the tests, she said they have little influence over the operation because of the cost involved.

SODA has two meetings planned Wednesday at the Waccamaw Library to explain the current status of the offshore drilling permits to the public, at 2 and 6 p.m. The group hopes to get coastal residents to contact lawmakers to renew opposition to the testing.

“Seismic does not find oil and gas. It finds the geologic substructure, which is why companies have to drill” exploratory wells, Howell said.

Armstrong has heard the argument that the public needs to know what resources are available. But she pointed out the seismic test data is proprietary. “The only people who are going to know is the drilling companies,” she said. “They’re doing harm for no reason if we’ve decided we don’t want oil drilling off our coast, which we have.”

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