South Carolina joins litigants fighting seismic tests for offshore oil and gas

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GOP-dominated South Carolina has become the latest state to join a long list of litigants challenging President Trump’s plan to approve seismic testing for oil and gas deposits off a wide expanse of the Atlantic coast.

Two lawsuits have been filed to block federal permits that were issued in November to five energy companies. The permits allow the companies to conduct loud and frequent airgun blasts under water that can kill or injure marine life.

Opponents of the testing claim the move is an economic disaster waiting to happen. It's also the first step toward a much larger oil and gas drilling program planned by the federal government.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a motion in federal court Jan. 7 requesting that his state intervene in the pending lawsuits, which were originally filed Dec. 11 by South Carolina cities and towns, a chamber of commerce and numerous environmental organizations.

“Once again the federal government seeks to intrude upon the sovereignty of the state of South Carolina,” Wilson, a Republican, said in a statement. “Such action puts our state’s economy, tourism and beautiful natural resources at risk. We are bringing suit to protect the state’s economy and the rule of law.”

There is widespread disapproval of the testing, with opponents citing the potential deleterious effects on marine life and harmful impacts to local economies.

More than 320 municipalities nationwide and over 2,000 elected local, state and federal officials have formally opposed offshore oil and gas drilling and seismic airgun blasting, including more than 240 along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, according to the ocean advocacy organization Oceana, founded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Oak Foundation, Marisla Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

“Nearly all the governors along the east and west coasts — Republicans and Democrats alike — have expressed concerns with and/or opposition to expanded oil and gas exploration, development, and production off their coast,” Oceana says on its website.

On Nov. 30, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued the first incidental harassment permits to five companies, allowing them to conduct seismic airgun blasting to map oil and gas deposits from the coasts of Delaware to mid-Florida, and out more than 300 nautical miles offshore.

Issuance of the permits, which allow the companies to disturb, injure and kill marine life over the more than 87,000 miles of testing area, triggered the filing of two lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for South Carolina.

“In defiance of law, science and common sense, President Trump’s administration authorized an assault on the ocean. We are suing. They acted unlawfully and we’re going to stop it,” Oceana campaign manager Diane Hoskins told The Bond Buyer.

Oceana is one of nine environmental organizations that filed a suit Dec. 11. A second suit was filed the same day by 16 South Carolina cities and towns and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber Of Commerce.

The complaints, which have since been consolidated into one case by the court, contend that the federal agencies involved in environmental studies supporting issuance of the permits conducted arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful analyses in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The litigants, including South Carolina, are seeking an injunction to block the seismic airgun surveys by the five companies.

“We understand the need to have a long-term, reliable energy supply. However, any comprehensive energy strategy must comply with the rule of law,” Wilson said. “While oil and gas exploration could bring in billions of dollars [to the federal government], doing it without adequate study and precautions could end up costing billions of dollars and cause irreversible damage to our economy and coast.”

In addition to South Carolina, nine other states also intervened in the suits: Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

Florida, which has the longest coastline of any state where the administration is prepared to allow offshore seismic testing, hasn’t requested to intervene in the seismic testing suits.

Ashley Moody, Florida’s newly elected attorney general, didn’t respond to a request for comment asking if she is considering taking legal action in the matter. She is a Republican.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who was propelled into office with Trump’s support, said the day after he took office on Jan. 8 that the state should take “necessary actions to adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities.”

The companies applying for the incidental harassment permits — TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co., CGG Services Inc., GX Technology Corp., Spectrum Geo Inc., and WesternGeco LLC — have also asked to intervene in the litigation.

Their petition said the companies applied for permits years ago, have invested substantial amounts of time and resources in the administrative process, and want to intervene in the case to “protect their interests” in the permits.

If the plaintiffs are successful in invalidating the permits, “such as result will also have broader negative impacts on the geophysical exploration industry and the oil and gas industry,” the companies said.

The Trump administration announced in early 2018 that it would expand offshore coastal drilling, a program that was considered and rejected by former President Barack Obama.

The Department of the Interior has proposed a new five-year drilling plan that calls for removing restrictions from exploring for new energy resources from the outer continental shelf, estimating that three billion barrels of oil are beneath the U.S.’s coastal waters, along with 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Opponents of the plan point to the April 20, 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion as an example of the danger posed by offshore drilling.

The explosion about 50 miles off Louisiana’s coast killed 11 workers, injured 17 others and dumped 134 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2016, a federal judge signed off on a $20 billion settlement with BP to provide fiscal relief for damages suffered by what is characterized as the nation’s largest environmental disaster.

Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas combined are receiving coastal and economic damage compensation totaling about $14.6 billion over 16 to 18 years.

The seismic testing litigation prompted by the administration’s drilling plan is being delayed by the partial shutdown of the federal government because Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the National Marine Fisheries Service and its Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver are named as defendants.

Those agencies’ websites say they are affected by a lapse in appropriations and have limited operations to respond to lawsuits.

U.S District Judge Richard M. Gergel issued an order on Dec 28 staying further filings in the case because the federal agencies are unable to respond to the complaints during the shutdown.

After South Carolina requested to intervene, a stay of the state’s suit was requested but it was opposed by Wilson on Jan. 8 because he said counsel for the United States could not say if the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is being impacted by the shutdown.

The bureau must also approve permits for the companies to conduct ocean testing.

Wilson said the state’s interest could be adversely affected if the bureau issued permits while a stay is in effect.

“Every coastal municipality in the state of South Carolina has passed resolutions opposing seismic airgun surveying…because of the harm that it would cause to the marine environment that supports vibrant coastal economies, including tourism and commercial fishing,” said Wilson’s court filing. “Plaintiff cities and towns have proprietary interests in the marine resources, tax revenues and aesthetics that will be harmed along the coast if seismic airgun surveying is allowed to proceed.”

Seismic testing could have a “huge effect” on South Carolina’s tourism economy, the filing said.

Between 2014 and 2007, the economic value of businesses making use of ocean and coastal waters in the state grew to $44 billion from $37 billion, Wilson said, citing data from the National Ocean Economic Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.

In the same time period, he said jobs grew to 445,398 from 433,183, and total wages grew to $17.2 billion from $14.6 billion.

“This economic growth results from and is reliant on, in large part, a vibrant and healthy marine ecosystem,” Wilson said.

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