Offshore seismic testing push continues despite oil drilling ban (copy)

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

Conservation groups on Wednesday moved to block seismic-blast testing for fossil fuels offshore South Carolina and the Atlantic coast until their case against the Trump administration can be heard in court.

The filing for a preliminary injunction says the administration's approval for five companies to start testing violates federal protections for marine mammals because the blasts are considered dangerous to oceanic species.

"Dolphins, whales and other animals could endure five million blasts as these companies seek offshore oil and gas deposits," contends the injunction filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston.

"The government failed to consider the combined effects of overlapping and simultaneous surveys are greater than the effects of individual seismic-blasting boats," the injunction request states.

The previously filed federal case challenges the Trump administration's permitting of seismic testing — a method that uses airgun blasts to map the oil and gas reserves under the ocean floor.

The nine conservation groups that filed the lawsuit in December include a number of Charleston-based organizations, such as the Coastal Conservation League as well as chapters of the Southern Environmental Law Center, Oceana, Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club.

Their case has been joined with a lawsuit filed by 16 coastal communities and the S.C. Small Business Alliance, as well as the state of South Carolina through Attorney General Alan Wilson.

The testing, which involves loud airgun blasts underwater, is a precursor to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. Both are widely opposed on the coast. 

The issue pits a concern for the environment and South Carolina's multibillion-dollar tourism industry, against potential new revenue and jobs.

Critics of the blasting tactic point to issues across the globe. The blasts are suspected in the deaths of marine turtles that recently washed up on the Israel coast.

The injunction was filed after a previous injunction had ended. It had stopped the testing during the partial federal government shutdown when federal employees were called back to work to begin going ahead with approving company plans. 

"The harm seismic blasting will inflict on dolphins and whales can't be reversed, that's why it's so important to have a full and open debate in court before allowing boats in the water," Laura Cantral, director of the Coastal Conservation League, said Wednesday.

The International Association of Geophysical Contractors, which represents seismic exploration companies, said it would not comment on pending litigation.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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