WASHINGTON — South Carolina environmentalists were disappointed last month when President Barack Obama excluded the state's coastline from protection against offshore drilling.
These same activists are now cheering the Obama administration's denial Friday of six permits to perform seismic airgun testing, all of which would have affected the South Carolina coast.
"Seismic testing is a dangerous, old technology that would dramatically harm our marine life and thus threaten our local tourism and commercial fishing economies,” said Frank Knapp, co-founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast.
“This important decision will buy us time to educate the next administration about the Atlantic Coast business community overwhelming opposition to offshore drilling.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., of Mount Pleasant, who joined the fight against approving the permits, said the move is a victory for South Carolina residents who made it clear they didn't want seismic testing in their backyards.
"It’s a decision that speaks volumes to the importance of voicing one’s opinion, and residents along our coast should be proud of the way they sent a compelling message to Washington," Sanford said in a statement Friday.
The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, an office housed within the U.S. Interior Department, handed down its decision Friday, coming exactly two weeks before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office. Had BOEM not acted, the permits would have remained pending, allowing a new administration with an unpredictable environmental record the opportunity to approve them.
All six contractors that sought to lease areas of the S.C. coastline for seismic testing can reapply, though that process can drag on for years if up against strong opposition, which is expected to persist. Unlike Obama's earlier White House executive order on offshore drilling, the agency denials of the seismic testing permits cannot be automatically overturned by Trump.
In seismic tests, powerfully loud air guns are fired underwater every 16 seconds or so to read “echoes” from the bottom geology. The exploration work also could include drilling test wells.
In addition to being disruptive to tourists and residents of the South Carolina coastline, Oceana's Claire Douglass said in facts have been established that seismic testing is dangerous for marine life as well.
"Fish, turtles and whales ... depend on sound for communication and survival," she said in a media statement. "Numerous studies demonstrate the negative impacts that seismic airgun noise has on ocean ecosystems. The government’s own estimates state that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more."
Supporters of the practice insist the jury is still out on whether seismic testing is harmful to wildlife.
“After more than 50 years of continuous seismic surveying around the world, including the Gulf of Mexico, and a decade of intense scientific and environmental advocacy group scrutiny, there is still no scientific support for statements that sound from seismic surveys harms marine life populations,” Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, earlier this summer.
On Friday, National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi made a similar statement while slamming the decision to deny the testing permits. He called BOEM's "blanket denial of seismic survey permits is an unsurprising attempt to put another nail in the coffin of sensible energy exploration in the Atlantic."
With only a few exceptions, members of the South Carolina congressional delegation were largely silent following the BOEM announcement.
The delegation's lone Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, is already well-known for his opposition to seismic testing. U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., who represents the coastal Grand Strand, opposes offshore drilling but said back in June seismic testing was "important" in order to determine "what resources we have."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., the delegation's most vocal advocate for seismic testing, took the opportunity Friday to issue what might be one of his last scathing indictments of the Obama administration before the Trump administration takes over.
"This is clearly a political stunt, and emblematic of how the administration uses administrative law as a weapon to abuse American companies," Duncan said in a statement to The Post and Courier. "They want to keep the public in the dark about exactly how much resources are in the Atlantic, so they can't make informed decisions regarding their economic prosperity.”
Duncan also predicted Friday's news would only be "a minor setback."
Knapp said he wasn't so sure, as a new administration is on the horizon in South Carolina. Gov. Nikki Haley, who was among a group of governors pressuring Obama to allow offshore drilling, will soon be stepping down to be Trump's U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, Haley's successor who became the first statewide elected official to endorse Trump for president, opposes the practice.