Offshore seismic testing push continues despite oil drilling ban (copy) (copy) (copy)

A seismic survey ship operates offshore the mid-Atlantic states. International Association of Geophysical Contractors/provided

The volatile fight over whether to allow seismic blast testing for oil and natural gas offshore was supposed to go to trial Dec. 2 in Charleston.

That won't happen. The case isn't likely to be heard until sometime next year. An attorney involved characterized it as stuck.

The U.S. Commerce Department is arguing it doesn't have to turn over all the records of how it arrived at its decision to allow the testing. 

Meanwhile, Commerce at any time could issue permits to start the work anyway — a possibility that Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys say they are ready to fight.

The documents, technically administrative records, are central to determining whether the department acted properly while allowing the work to be permitted.

Law Center attorney Catherine Wannamaker and South Carolina Environmental Law Project attorney Amy Armstrong said in court filings that most of those records were improperly withheld.

"Federal Defendants have certified an administrative record that, by design, excludes virtually all predecisional and deliberative agency materials," the filing said.

Multiple legal challenges to environmental regulation reworks are seeing similar delays.

Other cases directly affecting South Carolina include a lawsuit in October alleging U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is refusing to disclose what it is doing to maintain the critically endangered red wolf, despite repeated Freedom of Information requests. The wolf is a native species to the state.

The cases also include multiple lawsuits and counter-suits over Clean Water Act regulations that date back to the earliest days of the Trump presidency.

The law center recently sued over a new administration attempt to ease Clean Water regulations, an effort made while the three previous suits on easing the rules were still underway.

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 airgun 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 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.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in July objected to issuing one of those permits, saying the work was incompatible to the coast. The company involved, WesternGeco, has appealed to Commerce, saying the national interest outweighs adverse coastal effects.

The Obama administration decided not to pursue the work off the East Coast. Trump resumed the process of permitting it shortly after his administration started in 2017.

Opposition quickly mustered along the Eastern seaboard. The lawsuit underway in Charleston District federal court lists as plaintiffs 10 states, 19 municipalities in South Carolina alone, at least eight environmental groups and the S.C. Small Business Alliance.

The municipalities and the environmental groups sued separately, but the cases are being heard as one. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson "intervened," or joined with the South Carolina municipalities in January.

After the records dispute is resolved, that group intends to sue for summary judgment, according to Wilson spokesman Robert Kittle. Essentially that means asking the judge to rule in their favor because Commerce did not follow federal law when it set the rules for permitting.

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