Work can't go forward on issuing permits for offshore seismic testing until the federal shutdown ends, a federal judge in Charleston ruled Friday.
The ruling came in response to a motion filed by several conservation, municipal and business interests opposing the permits.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel also ruled the work couldn't proceed until after he rules on an accompanying motion by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
The rulings provide the groups an early blunt against a Trump administration move this month to continue the controversial work at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management while the government is in the middle of a partial shutdown.
The court stopped "federal Defendants, BOEM, and any other federal agency or entity from taking action to promulgate permits, otherwise approve, or take any other official action regarding the pending permit applications for oil and gas surveys in the Atlantic," Gergel's order said.
Wilson, who wants South Carolina state government included in the legal fight to oppose offshore drilling, spoke in support of Friday's order.
“We appreciate Judge Gergel’s prudent ruling on this issue," he said. "It’s common sense that if the federal government is shut down and doesn’t have the resources to perform most of its normal functions then it doesn’t have the resources to start this proposed seismic testing offshore."
The administration in early January called back Bureau of Ocean Energy Management workers — with pay — to process offshore seismic testing permits in the Atlantic. The callback came as some 800,000 other federal employees are furloughed or not being paid because of the continuing government shutdown.
The testing, which involves loud air gun blasts underwater, is a precursor to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. Both are widely opposed on the coast as presenting an unjustifiable risk to the environment and tourist economy.
Wilson has asked Gergel not to delay a ruling on Wilson's pending motion that seeks to allow the state to join a lawsuit by opponents to stop the testing.
The delay was requested earlier this month by the Trump administration's Department of Justice, which said it didn't have staff or funds to handle the case in court while the federal government is shut down.
As part of that motion to stay, Justice Department attorneys said the lease permits would not be acted on while the partial federal shutdown is in effect.
Testing opponents welcomed the ruling.
"The Trump administration was trying to pull a fast one on the court and the plaintiffs to quickly move forward with permitting oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean which would be devastating to our local economies,” Frank Knapp, president of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said.
The chamber is one of more than a dozen business, conservation groups and coastal municipalities suing to oppose the leases being granted.
One environmental group said the Trump administration was hoping to have it both ways.
“The government’s attempt to stay this litigation while still working on seismic permits during a nationwide government shutdown put South Carolina at a distinct legal disadvantage, and the court recognized that," said attorney Catherine Wannamaker, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is handling the lawsuits.
"This is a case that has attracted national attention, and we’re pleased the court is taking this important step to ensure a fair process for both sides," she said.
The International Association of Geophysical Contractors, which represents exploration companies, said it would not comment on pending litigation.
BOEM spokespeople are on furlough for the shutdown and not available for comment.