South Carolina environmental agency reverses course, deals blow to oil exploration off coast
South Carolina environmental officials have dealt a blow to one of the companies wanting federal approval to explore for oil and gas off the state’s coast in the face of widespread opposition.
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control told WesternGeco that its plan to conduct seismic testing is incompatible with the state’s coastal policy and involves too much unknown risk to wildlife and an economy reliant on seafood, tourism and related activities.
The company has 30 days to ask the U.S. Commerce secretary to overrule the objection.
DHEC delivered the decision by letter Monday after hearing unanimous opposition to offshore exploration. More than 1,700 public comments were filed from politicians, state wildlife officials, various advocacy organizations and citizens. Formal pushback to oil exploration, which precedes offshore drilling, began in Beaufort and now includes coastal communities throughout the state.
The state agency said new research caused it to change course after previously not objecting to multiple permit requests.
“It’s hopeful that (DHEC) — using science, public opinion and political mood — is going to be more responsive,” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. “And this is evidence that they are taking a much more serious and broad view than they did.”
Seismic testing involves boats systematically towing airguns that send loud blasts to the ocean floor in search of oil and gas deposits. Federal officials are considering seven permit applications to test in the Atlantic.
WesternGeco is seeking to operate out of Charleston and would test over the course of a year along the Atlantic coast, from offshore of southeast Maryland to St. Augustine, Florida.
An oil industry report last year said tapping oil and gas reserves off the coast could be worth $1.5 billion in additional tax revenue for South Carolina over the next 20 years. The additional revenue would alleviate property taxes, help pay for improvements to roads and bridges and create high-paying jobs, an industry lobbyist said.
But opponents said the risks to local economies outweigh the purported benefits.
Beaufort County municipalities and other coastal communities sued federal regulators in December, saying offshore testing violated federal law protecting marine animals.
U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-SC, introduced a bill in March that would permanently ban oil and gas leases in federal waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
A state budget proviso introduced by state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, bars state and local permits from being issued for projects related to offshore drilling or testing. The directive is in place for a year.
Environmental advocates heralded DHEC’s decision.
“This is yet another signal to Washington that dangerous seismic testing, the precursor to offshore oil and gas drilling, is not up for debate in our state.,” Coastal Conservation League director Laura Cantral said in a statement. “The Trump administration should immediately dismiss its dangerous plans and protect communities that rely on a healthy and vibrant coast.”
The recent decision represents a reversal for state environmental regulators who OK’d the testing for three companies in 2015 under certain conditions. DHEC cited recent research in explaining why it now objects to the testing.
DHEC said new information tells more about how the underwater noise affects numerous species and that more research is needed to develop plans for avoiding harmful effects during testing.
“Based on this information, DHEC has determined that seismic surveying activities proposed by WesternGeco may significantly impact the commercial and recreational fisheries that provide substantial economic benefit to the state of South Carolina and its coastal communities,” Christopher Stout, the agency official over the coastal regulations, wrote in the letter to the company.
While the proposed testing would be done in federal waters, state environmental officials have a chance to review the proposed work for its potential effect on the coastline. They don’t have the power to issue or outright deny permit requests.
The agency said yes to three permit applications in 2015 under the following conditions: that the work not occur during sea turtle mating season, that it be conducted more than 40 nautical miles offshore and follow certain precautions in sensitive fish habitats.
Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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