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An oil rig operates in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 off the southeastern tip of Louisiana. The first permit to explore off South Carolina is under review by state regulators.

South Carolina could stop controversial seismic gun testing for natural gas and oil in federal waters offshore if it disrupts the coastal environment or economy.

The slim prospect has galvanized conservation groups as regulators review the first of what may be seven permit applications.

Federal law governing the permits requires the work not to conflict with the coastal zone management plans of individual states. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is now reviewing the first application made by Spectrum Geo Inc.

The issue cuts to the heart of Lowcountry coastal life, where people and interests are divided between exploring for potential economic benefit, or restricting exploration to protect marine life and a valuable tourism economy. The proposed exploration and drilling is politically charged and largely supported by S.C. legislators.

DHEC has opened a public comment period until Feb. 27, at which point staff will decide whether to hold public hearings. A number of groups including the Southern Environmental Law Center, Coastal Conservation League and Oceana are using the opportunity to protest the permit and push for the hearings.

A DHEC spokesman said it would be inappropriate to comment while the permit is under review.

“States can stop an activity that’s permitted by the federal government in federal waters, if it’s not consistent” with the plan, said Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana vice president. That essentially means, if the activity threatens endangered species under state purview, such as the loggerhead turtle, its fishing industry or economy.

“It really comes down to a decision by the governor’s administration,” Savitz said, adding that more commonly, settlements are negotiated when states object.

“The governor has always supported offshore drilling, just as she has always taken advice from her agencies when they have all the facts. This will be no different,” said Chaney Adams, Haley press secretary.

Spectrum Geo, an international exploration company with offices in the United States, is the first of what may be as many as seven companies to apply for the permits, according to Oceana. Two more “are in the pipeline,” Savitz said.

The federal government in late January began the process of opening waters at least 50 miles off the Southeast for leasing over a five-year period, effectively ending a 30-year ban on oil and gas exploration. The first “scoping” meeting, an informal information session similar to a public hearing, is scheduled for Monday.

In South Carolina, the governor as well as much of the state Legislature has publicly supported at least the testing. The groups hope to use comment and public hearing forums for each permit review to make appeals to the public to oppose it.

“If local communities weigh in, their opinion will carry a great deal of weight,” said Katie Zimmerman, conservation league program director.

“We’ll see what happens,” said law center attorney Christopher DeScherer. “We think once the public fully understands what the issues are here, the public will oppose it and other activities like it.”

Geology and earlier testing off South Carolina have suggested there is little currently exploitable oil or natural gas to be found. Some estimates suggest drilling would produce enough oil and gas to meet demand for less than a week.

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, which maintains that exploration and drilling is much safer today than just five years ago.

The BOEM approval put restrictions in place designed to mitigate potential injuries. Opponents say they are not strict enough.

“Incredibly, seismic operators plan to re-shoot the same areas over and over to re-package the data to sell to individual oil companies,” DeScherer said.

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