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Court denies Trump administration attempt to halt SC offshore drilling lawsuit

Trump Offshore Drilling (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Pelicans float on the water with an offshore oil platform in the background in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., on May 13, 2010. File/Mark J. Terrill/AP

The fight to stop seismic blast-testing and drilling for oil and natural gas offshore South Carolina just won one more round.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston has denied the Department of the Interior's motion to dismiss lawsuits filed by several groups, including the South Carolina Attorney General's office.

What it means is that the case will continued to be tried, said attorney Amy Armstrong with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, one of the drilling opponents.

Meanwhile, the department at any time could issue permits to start the work anyway — a possibility that opponents say they are ready to fight.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson called the case "vital to South Carolina and its beautiful coastline and natural resources."

In denying the motion to dismiss, Gergel's cited a legal precedent that an executive order alone cannot remove property — in this case, offshore tracts — from federal protection designated by an earlier president.

The Obama administration in 2016 decided not to allow exploration leases off the East Coast. President Donald Trump's administration resumed the process of permitting the practice shortly after he took office in 2017.

55 Congress members asking Obama not to test for oil and natural gas offshore (copy) (copy) (copy)

Oil and natural industry companies are seeking to open waters offshore South Carolina to drilling and other industrialization. File/BOEM/Provided

The ruling follows a January decision representing a major win for drilling opponents. In that ruling, the federal agencies in charge of approving seismic testing for offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic were ordered to show conservationists how they arrived at their permitting decisions.

It meant staff will have to disclose emails, memos, attachments and other communications on various discussions the groups expect to provide insight into how the agencies moved toward opening areas off the coast, including South Carolina.

The other drilling opponents challenging the Trump administration include 10 states, 19 municipalities in South Carolina alone, at least eight environmental groups and the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

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 issue pits environmentalists and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry against potential new revenue and jobs. The work is widely opposed in South Carolina and elsewhere along on the East Coast.

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

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