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Trump's SC offshore drilling moratorium doesn't stop seismic testing, feds say in lawsuit

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A seismic survey ship operates off the coastline of mid-Atlantic states. The federal government said in a court filing Monday that a new Trump administration ban on oil drilling off the south Atlantic coast doesn't stop companies from requesting to search for oil. File  

The federal government said in a court filing Monday that a new Trump administration ban on oil drilling off the south Atlantic coast doesn't stop companies from requesting to search for oil in those waters.

The case involves two consolidated lawsuits challenging permits issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service that allow seismic testing companies to disturb marine life.

The testing involves shooting air gun blasts at the ocean floor to map whether fossil fuels lie underneath. It has been shown to harm sea life such as whales. 

The litigation fell into question briefly when President Donald Trump announced earlier this month he was ordering a 10-year ban on drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The move prompted U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel to ask the federal Commerce Department to explain how the move might affect the case because the government's prior reasoning for the seismic permits was to speed offshore oil and gas development.

The memorandum "has no legal effect on the status of the applications to conduct seismic surveys," according to the department's reply. 

Five companies had received a permit from NMFS to search for the offshore fossil fuel and are waiting on a second and final permit from a different federal agency.

One of them, Texas-based WesternGeco LLC, withdrew its permit and from the legal case this month. 

The government contends their ability to issue testing permits is legally separate from the authority to allow drilling, and thus was not affected by Trump's order. 

That may technically be true, S.C. Environmental Law Project Director Amy Armstrong said, but she argued it still doesn't make sense to allow the oil search to continue if drilling is truly off the table.

SCELP is representing 16 cities and towns around the state, along with the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, in one of the consolidated cases. 

Armstrong said she wasn't surprised to hear that was the Commerce Department's response.

"From the moment we all saw the president's memo, there was a recognition this could be rescinded just as quickly as it was issued," she said.

Catherine Wannamaker, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney representing nine environmental groups in the other suit, said the government's reasoning means the case will move forward in the short term.

She wondered whether there would be anything left to litigate after Nov. 30, when the permits at issue in the case expire. They can be extended, if the testing companies apply. 

South Carolina is also a party in the case. The S.C. Attorney General's office plans to make a filing Wednesday related to the federal answer, but spokesman Robert Kittle declined to say what it would contain. 

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

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