South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson will join a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and a coalition of coastal towns in an effort to block President Donald Trump from opening up the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas exploration.
Wilson's announcement Monday came about a month after nine conservation groups and 16 South Carolina coastal communities sued in federal court in Charleston to stop seismic testing off the East Coast.
The move makes Wilson the first Republican attorney general to join the effort, adding to nine other Democratic attorneys general who joined the lawsuit last month.
Gov. Henry McMaster had previously said he was not ready to sue the Trump administration, contending there was still time to negotiate for a South Carolina exemption. But he said Monday that he stands behind Wilson's action.
"Governor McMaster and Attorney General Wilson have communicated and collaborated throughout this process, and the governor supports the attorney general’s decision to take any and all actions necessary to ensure that we will never see any seismic testing or drilling off of South Carolina’s coast," McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said Monday.
Symmes said McMaster will continue to use his open line of communication with the administration to make the state's case and will work with state lawmakers who are attempting to block oil and gas infrastructure on South Carolina's coast.
The federal lawsuit 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 federal government has sought to allow five companies to perform that testing under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassing or killing animals such as whales or dolphins.
"Although a number of coastal municipalities are parties to this suit, the Attorney General represents the interests of the entire state, including its agencies that could be affected by the seismic surveying and the general public," Wilson said in a statement. "No single plaintiff or the present group of plaintiffs represents all of those interests."
He said the approval of those leases intruded on the state's sovereignty and violated the law.
"We understand the need to have a long-term, reliable energy supply," Wilson said. "While oil and gas exploration could bring in billions of dollars, doing it without adequate study and precautions could end up costing billions of dollars and cause irreversible damage to our economy and coast.”
The lawsuit is currently stayed, or delayed, at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, which doesn't have the staff to handle it during the ongoing federal shutdown.
Before the shutdown, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was ready to issue those permits after clearing environmental hurdles. Tracts off South Carolina are among the waters up for grabs.
The issue pits a concern for the environment and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry against potential new revenue and jobs. The work is widely opposed on the coast.
Attorneys general in nine other states previously joined the lawsuit.
“What is particularly heartening is that so many of our elected leaders have put aside their political differences to stand up for South Carolina’s coastal communities and businesses," said Laura Cantral, director of the Coastal Conservation League, one of the groups suing.
The 16 municipalities are Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Folly Beach, Edisto Island, Seabrook Island, Kiawah Island, James Island, Beaufort, Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Port Royal, Awendaw, Pawleys Island, Briarcliffe Acres and North Myrtle Beach. Also part of the litigation is the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
Other groups pursuing the lawsuit include South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, North Carolina Coastal Federation, One Hundred Miles and Defenders of Wildlife, Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Surfrider Foundation, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.