DHEC board lets seismic testing for oil stand

A seismic survey ship in operation offshore mid-Atlantic states.

The state won’t stop a federal permit to use seismic guns to search for oil and natural gas offshore, its environmental regulatory board decided Thursday.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control board denied a request by environmental advocates and others to overrule a staff decision to approve the first of three permits. The decision sets the stage for another protracted legal battle over the agency’s decisions.

The request “appears to be more emotional involvement than factual involvement,” said board member Clarence Batts, who represents an Upstate district. “This type of work has been done for many years in many different areas without any sort of detriment to marine life.”

Another board member called the request frivolous.

“It’s not a surprise,” said Hamilton Davis of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. But it was a surprise that they characterized it that way, he said, and suggests the board decision was political.

DHEC denies most requests to review staff decisions, said Amy Armstrong of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. But the magnitude of the issue and the number of people and groups opposed to the work indicated that staff and the board should have given their interests a closer listen.

A lawsuit appealing the decision “is definitely an option we’re looking at,” she said.

Staff approved the permit without a mandated public hearing, saying a federal hearing on the same issue that DHEC took part in fulfilled the mandate. DHEC could derail a permit if it finds the work disrupts the coastal environment or economy.

In seismic tests, powerfully loud air guns are fired repeatedly underwater to read “echoes” from the bottom geology. The tests can open the way for drilling.

The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people appear to largely support curbing exploration to protect dolphins, whales, sea turtles and other marine life, as well as a billion-dollar tourism economy. At least 18 South Carolina communities, mostly along the coast, have opposed the testing and drilling.

They are among more than 60 communities and dozens of other groups in the region that have come out against the work. Industry spokespeople have said the work can be done with little disruption to marine life or the environment.

Most state political figures and others support exploring for the potential economic benefits, even though the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has concluded that the work “may result in low immediate economic benefits for nearby communities.”

Gov. Nikki Haley and state officials have taken part in a regional governors coalition actively lobbying to open the region to offshore exploration and drilling.

DHEC staff in May gave its go-ahead to Spectrum GEO, the first of at least five companies that have asked for DHEC approval, as part of the federal permitting process. Two more have now been approved, and requests to review the approvals will be filed, Armstrong said.

Advocates for the S.C. Environmental Law Project, Coastal Conservation League and Oceana said DHEC skirted a law requiring a public hearing if more than 20 people or a public official requests one, and the agency did not notify them of the decision.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.