Obama administration denies permits for seismic testing along S.C. coast
WASHINGTON — South Carolina environmental advocates were disappointed last month when President Barack Obama excluded the state's coastline from protection against offshore drilling.
These same activists, however, are now cheering the Obama administration's denial of six permits to perform seismic airgun testing, all of which would have affected the South Carolina coast.
"Seismic testing is a dangerous, old technology that would dramatically harm our marine life and thus threatening our local tourism and commercial fishing economies,” said Frank Knapp, co-founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, in a statement. “This important decision will buy us time to educate the next Administration about the Atlantic Coast business community overwhelming opposition to offshore drilling.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who has helped lead the fight against approving the permits, said this was a victory for South Carolina residents who made it clear they didn't want seismic testing in their backyards.
"It’s a decision that speaks volumes to the importance of voicing one’s opinion, and residents along our coast should be proud of the way they sent a compelling message to Washington," said Sanford in a statement Friday.
The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, an office housed within the Interior Department, handed down its verdict on Friday, exactly two weeks before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office. Had BOEM not acted, the permits would have remained pending, giving a new administration with an unpredictable environment record the opportunity to approve them.
All six contractors that wanted to lease the areas of the S.C. coastline for seismic testing can re-apply, though that process can drag on for years if up against strong opposition, which is expected to persist.
Meanwhile, unlike Obama's executive order on offshore drilling, the denials of the seismic testing permits cannot be automatically overturned by Trump.
In seismic tests, powerfully loud air guns are fired underwater every 16 seconds or so to read “echoes” from the bottom geology. According to Oceana, a national ocean conservation organization, the noise is so loud it can be heard up to 2,500 miles, a disruptive proposition for those in the tourism industry or simply their own quality of life.
The exploration work also could include drilling test wells.
In addition to being disruptive to tourists and residents alike along the South Carolina coastline, Oceana's Claire Douglass also said in a statement the facts have been established that seismic testing is dangerous for marine life.
"Fish, turtles and whales ... depend on sound for communication and survival. Numerous studies demonstrate the negative impacts that seismic airgun noise has on ocean ecosystems," she said. "The government’s own estimates state that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more."
Supporters of the practice insist the jury is still out on whether seismic testing is harmful to wildlife.
“After more than 50 years of continuous seismic surveying around the world, including the Gulf of Mexico, and a decade of intense scientific and environmental advocacy group scrutiny, there is still no scientific support for statements that sound from seismic surveys harms marine life populations,” said Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, this past summer.
On Friday, National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi made a similar statement while slamming the decision to deny the testing permits, calling BOEM's "blanket denial of seismic survey permits is an unsurprising attempt to put another nail in the coffin of sensible energy exploration in the Atlantic."
This is a developing story. Please check back at www.postandcourier.com for updates.
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier's Washington correspondent. Reach her at 843-834-0419 and follow her @emma_dumain.