Sanford to oppose seismic testing offshore?

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

The most significant thing said Wednesday won’t be in the public comments made about using seismic air guns to hunt for oil and natural gas offshore. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., might well oppose it, after saying earlier he didn’t object to it.

“The more I’m learning the more I’m leaning back toward no,” he said. The nine Lowcountry coastal communities that have come out against it, “that begins to tip the scale,” Sanford said. Also, the public won’t learn what, if anything, the proprietary seismic surveys find and won’t be able to weigh the pros and cons.

Sanford has gone back and forth on his position on the testing, but said he has been re-evaluating as he learns more.

“It favors Washington at the expense of the state,” he said. Sanford added to expect an announcement soon.

“The offshore exploration and drilling debate has become unnecessarily partisan, especially at the state and federal level,” said Hamilton Davis of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which opposes testing and drilling. “This is about protecting South Carolina’s natural resources and quality of life, not politics and ideology. We need more Republican leadership like we have seen from state Sen. Chip Campsen.”

Federal regulators Wednesday held a mandated public comment session, or informal hearing, on whether to issue permits to companies for seismic exploration, which involves airguns firing off loud, repeated sound waves through the water. The permits also would allow sample drilling and other testing.

The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people and interests are divided between exploring for potential economic benefit or restricting exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy. Gov. Nikki Haley as well as the majority of the state and congressional lawmakers have publicly supported the testing.

The turnout at the hearing was modest. With the session more than halfway finished, only about three dozen people had turned out. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management staff in charge said that was similar to four earlier sessions in other coastal communities, and they would have liked to see more people.

Another company has joined the former nine companies that want to test for oil and gas at least 50 miles off South Carolina’s shore and other states in the region, although only eight plan to use seismic guns, said Michael Celata, BOEM regional deputy director. As a general rule, the exploration companies would have preliminary contracts with oil and natural gas companies for the data.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is now reviewing the permit applications of four of them, BOEM staff said. The permits could be derailed if DHEC finds the work disrupts the coastal environment or economy.

Most people at the BOEM session focused on a table set up for questions about noises and the effect on marine mammals.

How much the seismic gun noise disturbs endangered species such as the right whale and sea turtles is a contested issue between environmental and industry interests; leasing in offshore waters has tended to include some noise, season and distance restrictions to protect the creatures.

Seismic guns emit sound blasts that can deafen and injure marine animals, according to studies by the U.S. Navy and other groups. But they have been used for 30 years by research groups as well as the industry, and extensively in the Gulf of Mexico.

The industry maintains that exploration and drilling is much safer today than just five years ago, and that restrictions are in place to mitigate the risk. Conservation interests say more restrictions are needed and the risk to coastal life and tourism isn’t worth the potential revenue.

Stan Labak, BOEM marine acoustics specialist, said much more is known about the levels of sound that can injure or kill marine mammals than the levels that harass them to the point of changing behavior. Very little is known about the chronic effects on them or the ambient noise in the ocean.

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