Seismic testing permits go to public hearing

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

Nine companies so far want to use seismic guns to search for oil and natural gas off the South Carolina coast. The federal permits for them are up for public hearing Wednesday.

The hearing comes amid a swell of opposition that has been mounting since federal regulators last year gave a preliminary nod to the permits, opening an evaluation period by federal and state agencies.

A federal court in Hawaii just ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service acted illegally by approving Navy testing and training in the Pacific Ocean offshore. The crux of the ruling was that the use of explosives and sonar pings could kill thousands and impair millions of marine species ranging from whales to sea turtles.

The ruling gives environmental groups in the Southeast more support to argue against the use of seismic equipment here, and could also create challenges to recently approved permits for Navy training and a sonar range off the Southeast.

The effect of the noise on endangered species such as the right whale and sea turtles is a prime element of the opposition. Industry groups maintain the work already is regulated to minimize damage.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which NMFS is a part, is reviewing the judge’s decision, said spokeswoman Connie Barclay. “We are evaluating what this means as far as next steps.”

Federal regulators on Wednesday hold a mandated public 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.

“The seismic testing (off South Carolina) is unprecedented in scale and will have widespread negative impacts on marine mammals. I won’t be surprised to see the current proposals for seismic (testing) rolled back either by the regulatory agencies tasked with protecting marine mammals or by the courts,” said Hamilton Davis, of the Charleston-based advocate S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

“Will we be citing (the Hawaii ruling)? Definitely,” said Catherine Wannamaker, Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney.

The exploration industry supports “effective mitigation measures that are appropriate to the level of risk and specific to the local population of marine life,” said Gail Adams, spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors.

“Measures commonly used by the seismic industry include timing seismic surveys to avoid known areas of biological significance, such as whale foraging or breeding areas or avoiding seasonal marine life occurrences such as peak whale activity seasons or migration,” she said.

Meanwhile, at least nine Lowcountry beach or coast municipalities have gone on the record opposing testing as well as drilling, among more than 40 in the region. More than 15,000 comments were made last month, largely in opposition to drilling, in a regard to a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management request for comments on the environmental impact of leasing offshore waters for drilling.

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. The governor as well as the majority of the state and congressional legislators have publicly supported the testing.

Although the permits are mandated to be reviewed individually, Wednesday’s hearing is being conducted collectively, Wannamaker said. “They should process them one by one,” she said.

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