South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Will dolphins die in search for oil? Marine life at risk, legal action says
February 20th, 2019

By Sammy Fretwell, The State

COLUMBIA — Saying dolphins and whales are at risk in the search for oil, environmental groups asked a federal court Wednesday to block companies from launching seismic tests to look for oil deposits off the South Carolina coast.

The request for a preliminary injunction to stop seismic blasting would prevent the search from starting until lawsuits challenging seismic testing are decided, environmentalists said.

Conservation organizations seeking the halt include the Southern Environmental Law Center, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity. These groups are among the leading environmental organizations in the nation and the region.

“The harm seismic blasting will inflict on dolphins and whales can’t be reversed, that’s why it is so important to have a full and open debate in court before allowing boats in the water,” said Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. “We have a chance to stop harm before it begins and to prevent the precursor to offshore drilling, something that no coastal communities in South Carolina want.”

The Trump administration has approved five companies to begin seismic testing, which involves loud air gun blasts. Proponents of the search for oil off the S.C. coast say marine life won’t suffer any long-term harm from testing. They say seismic testing will help determine whether oil exists off the coast.

Don Weaver, president of the S.C. Association of Taxpayers, said he doubts seismic testing will result in “dolphins floating dead on the surface of the ocean.’’

“I don’t understand why they are afraid of the information. At least there would be proven science if we do the testing.’’

Whether to test and drill for oil in the Atlantic Ocean has energized communities along the East Coast against the practice, including a large contingent of coastal cities in South Carolina, as well as environmental groups. In separate lawsuits late last year against the federal government, environmentalists and 16 coastal communities sued to stop seismic testing that could lead to drilling. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson joined a group of state attorneys general involved in the challenge.

Green groups say the blasting violates three federal laws intended to protect the environment and marine life. Critics of such blasting say the practice is of particular concern because of its impact on rare species, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, listed as endangered by the federal government. Environmental groups say marine animals could be exposed to five million blasts from companies seeking to find oil.

But Georgetown lawyer Amy Armstrong said seismic blasting also could hurt nature-based tourism and the seafood industry by driving away important marine species. She plans to file her own request to block seismic testing early next week.

“There are economic implications for people who rely on selling local fish that are caught in coastal South Carolina waters, and the fish are driven away and not available to be sold,’’ said Armstrong, who represents the 16 coastal communities. “There are also commercial charter boats that take people out to catch fish.’’

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