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Feds' decision clears one hurdle to SC offshore oil search

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A seismic survey ship operates off the coastline of mid-Atlantic states. A federal agency has overturned a decision that blocked an oil exploration company from searching off South Carolina's coast. File  

A federal agency has overturned a decision that blocked an oil exploration company from searching off South Carolina's coast. 

Last year, South Carolina environmental office said WesternGeco's plans to conduct seismic testing offshore wasn't consistent with state coastal laws. The Texas-based firm has plans to conduct seismic testing from Virginia to the Georgia border. 

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said last July the testing runs counter to the state's goals to conserve natural resources along the coast. 

But in a decision dated Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ruled the search for oil was in the national interest and "outweighs any potential short-term, limited, and localized adverse coastal effects to fisheries and sea turtles."

South Carolina has the option to appeal. A spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office said the decision is up to DHEC, but the office would continue fighting a different case related to seismic testing in federal court. 

A similar decision in WesternGeco's favor was issued in North Carolina this week. 

The order was signed by Neil Jacobs, acting head of NOAA, who is no stranger to the South Carolina coast: He grew up surfing at Folly Beach's Washout. 

A spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, an advocate for exploration companies, did not immediately respond to a phone call. 

While NOAA's decision is a blow to drilling opponents in one sense, in reality, there are five other companies that are already further ahead in the process they need to complete before searching off the Palmetto State's shore.

All five have pending applications with the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, their last step before putting boats in the water. They're also at the center of a court case being litigated by the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Those firms went through the state's consistency review years ago; by the time WesternGeco applied, public opposition to drilling had snowballed, and the 1,720 public comments on their application were all opposed.  

Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with the Law Center, said Monday's decision "is a sign that the Trump administration appears poised to go forward with drilling and seismic (testing) at all costs, over the objection of citizens and a state that don't want it."

Seismic work consists of loud air gun blasts, which are used to map the geology of the ocean floor and potentially locate reserves of fossil fuels. 

The blasts are damaging to marine life, and have been shown to injure large animals like whales.

Environmentalists have also fought blasting because it's the first step toward drilling off the state's coast.

"This is another example of the federal government ignoring South Carolina in its push to open up our waters to offshore drilling," said Alan Hancock of the Coastal Conservation League. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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