Offshore oil, gas exploration opponents appeal DHEC testing approval

FILE/AP A group of Lowcountry coastal interests has appealed a state decision to approve a permit to test for oil and natural gas offshore. Opponents of the testing and potential drilling say the benefits aren’t worth the risk to a billion-dollar coastal tourism economy.

A Shem Creek commercial fishing business, three coastal towns and two environmental groups are appealing a recent decision by state regulators to approve the first permit application to use seismic guns to search for oil and natural gas offshore.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control gave its go-ahead earlier this month to Spectrum GEO, the first of at least five companies that have asked for DHEC approval.

But 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.

The league — along with the cities of Charleston, Beaufort and Folly Beach, the S.C. Wildlife Federation and Abundant Seafood — has asked the DHEC board to review the staff approval. Appeals are a required first step to legally contest decisions. If the board upholds its staff, a lawsuit could be filed in state Administrative Law Court.

The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people and interests are divided between exploring for potential economic benefits or curbing exploration to protect marine life and a billion dollar tourism economy. DHEC could derail a permit if it finds the work disrupts the coastal environment or economy.

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

More than 300 people requested a public hearing. DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said that instead of holding its own hearing, the agency took part in an early April federal hearing held in North Charleston.

More than 50 coastal municipalities and organizations have opposed exploration and drilling, including at least 18 in South Carolina. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., also has publicly come out in opposition. But Gov. Nikki Haley, as well as the majority of state and congressional lawmakers, have publicly supported the testing.

“Although 18 communities in South Carolina have passed resolutions opposing seismic testing and offshore drilling and thousands of citizens have spoken out against these activities, (DHEC) failed to adequately consider these concerns,” said Steve Gilbert of the S.C. Wildlife Federation.

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