‘We don’t want this’: SC cities, environmentalists sue to stop offshore drilling tests

Sixteen coastal South Carolina cities joined environmental groups to sue the Trump administration to stop seismic testing, arguing that it will hurt the coastal environment and the communities that rely on it. The local governments and environmental groups filed two separate federal lawsuits Tuesday in Charleston to stop plans for oil and gas exploration off the East Coast.

On Nov. 30, the federal government announced it would allow companies to test for offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The Trump administration granted five permits to search the ocean floor for oil and gas from Delaware to Florida, The Associated Press reports, but Republicans and Democrats in South Carolina have lined up in opposition to the move.

Communities up and down the South Carolina coast passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling, and Gov. Henry McMaster joined them.

“Ignoring the mounting opposition to offshore drilling, the decision to push forward with unnecessarily harmful seismic testing defies the law, let alone common sense,” Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Catherine Wannamaker, who filed one of the lawsuits, said in a news release. “An overwhelming number of communities, businesses, and elected officials have made it clear that seismic blasting–a precursor to drilling that no one wants–has no place off our coasts.”

Seismic testing involves blasting the seafloor with acoustic waves in hopes of finding oil and gas reserves, the lawsuit explains, paving the way for offshore drilling.

“This puts us one step closer to the dangerous and unnecessary offshore drilling,” South Carolina Democratic Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham said during a news conference Tuesday morning, broadcast live over Facebook.

He called the move to open offshore testing “reckless” and said the first bill he files as a new member of Congress in January will be to reinstate the ban on offshore drilling.

Rick Baumann, owner of Murrells Inlet Seafood and board member for the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said the federal government has a double standard when it comes to protecting the environment. The fishing industry, he said, respects regulations to protect fish stocks and endangered animals.

“Why are only fishing interests charged with proper management of ocean species while the oil industry is allowed to kill and maim them indiscriminately? Does the Endangered Species Act apply to everyone but the oil industry?” Baumann said during Tuesday’s news conference.

“Seismic testing and oil drilling off of South Carolina’s coast stands to have a tremendous impact on the important tourism industry of this State,” the cities’ lawsuit states.

The suit notes that every coastal community in South Carolina passed resolutions against seismic testing “because of the harm that it would cause to the marine environment that supports vibrant coastal economies, including tourism and commercial fishing.”

“When you have every mayor, every community saying, ‘We don’t want this,’ and now you’re going to shove seismic testing down our throats? I don’t think so,” Charleston Republican state Rep. Nancy Mace told the Associated Press.

The cities of Charleston, Beaufort, North Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Port Royal and 10 other towns and cities, along with the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, filed one of the suits against the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Sierra Club, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and other environmental groups filed a separate suit Tuesday.

The federal authorization for seismic testing opens up the waters off the East Coast from Delaware to roughly the middle of Florida, and between 200 and 350 miles out to sea, according to the court filing.

The Obama administration rejected requests for permits to test for oil and gas with seismic airguns because of the potential environmental damage. “We believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management wrote an a January 2017 news release announcing the decision days after the Trump administration took over.

The president overturned that decision in April 2017 with an executive order to expedite permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic. The Trump administration issued the permits Nov. 30.

The lawsuits argue seismic testing, which sends sound waves that can travel thousands of miles underwater, will harm whales, dolphins and other marine life and violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“Seismic testing can be harmful and even fatal to the hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals in the Atlantic,” the Surfrider Foundation’s Angela Howe said in a news release. “This litigation is aimed at protecting the Atlantic Ocean from the destruction of seismic testing, which is the first step of proposed offshore oil drilling. We will continue to stand up to protect our marine environment and our ocean ecosystems for this and future generations.”

The damage to the environment can turn into economic damage for South Carolina, the lawsuits argue, with coastal communities bringing tens of billions of dollars worth of economic activity to the state. “Seismic testing and oil drilling off of South Carolina’s coast stands to have a tremendous impact on the important tourism industry of this State. The four coastal counties of Horry, Georgetown, Charleston and Beaufort generate 71% of the state total Accommodations Tax receipts,” more than $13 billion a year, the lawsuits state.

Related stories from Macon Telegraph

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.