The federal agencies in charge of approving seismic testing for offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic must show conservationists how they arrived at their permitting decisions, a district court judge in Charleston has ruled.
That means staff will have to disclose emails, memos, attachments and other communications on various discussions.
The ruling, issued Friday, represents a major win for drilling opponents as it will provide insight into how the agencies moved toward opening areas off the coast, including South Carolina.
“To exclude these documents would, in effect, be creating an inaccurate record for the Court’s ultimate reviews,” U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel wrote.
The U.S. Commerce Department has 45 days to turn over the records.
Groups that sought the records expect them to add insight.
"We're looking forward to seeing what those documents actually say," said attorney Amy Armstrong of the S.C. Environmental Law Project.
A Commerce spokeswoman did not immediately respond when asked to comment.
The documents, technically administrative records, are central to determining whether the Commerce Department acted properly while allowing the work to be permitted. The opponents are arguing in court that the department didn't.
Commerce Department attorneys had said the agency didn't have to turn over records concerning permits for the work because the records were "privileged" and proprietary deliberations.
The Law Project and the Southern Environmental Law Center said the department used that privilege exemption to withhold most of the documents they sought.
The privilege claim has been a large holdup in the volatile fight over whether to allow seismic blast testing for oil and natural gas offshore. The group's lawsuit was supposed to go to trial Dec. 2 in Charleston.
Meanwhile, Commerce at any time could issue permits to start the work anyway — a possibility that law center attorneys say they are ready to fight.
The issue pits environmentalists and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry against potential new revenue and jobs. The work is widely opposed on the coast.
Six seismic testing companies have a total seven permit applications pending at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that could include work off South Carolina.
The testing involves using loud air gun blasts to map the oil and gas reserves under the ocean floor. The blasts have been shown to disrupt and injure sea creatures such as whales. Seismic tests are a precursor to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in July objected to issuing one of those permits, saying the work was incompatible to the coast. The company involved, WesternGeco, has appealed to Commerce, saying the national interest outweighs adverse coastal effects.
The Obama administration decided not to pursue the work off the East Coast. President Donald Trump's administration resumed the process of permitting it shortly after he took office in 2017.
Opposition quickly mustered along the Eastern Seaboard. The lawsuit underway in Charleston's U.S. District Court lists as plaintiffs: 10 states, 19 municipalities in South Carolina alone, at least eight environmental groups and the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
The municipalities and the environmental groups sued separately, but the cases are being heard as one. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has intervened, as well, joining alongside the South Carolina municipalities last year.
That group intends to sue for summary judgment, according to Wilson spokesman Robert Kittle. Essentially that means asking the judge to rule in their favor because the Commerce Department did not follow federal law when it set the rules for permitting.