Charleston Post and Courier
September 10, 2020
By Chloe Johnson
A federal judge wants to know how President Donald Trump’s order banning oil drilling off South Carolina affects five companies trying to search for fuels off the state’s coast.
The answer could spell the end to a lawsuit that was put in motion, in part, by the president trying to open offshore exploration along the U.S. south Atlantic coast three years ago.
Separately, an exploration company not related to the suit told the federal government Thursday it was no longer trying to search in the Atlantic.
The lawsuit includes two consolidated cases, though both ask the judge to strike down federal permits for companies that search for oil.
One suit was filed by nine environmental groups, and one was filed by 16 cities and towns around the state, along with the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel asked the federal government to explain how Trump’s most recent move on Tuesday relates to a 2017 executive order directing federal agencies to “encourage energy exploration and production,” including in the federal waters off of South Carolina. The government has 10 days to respond.
“The Government has disclosed no purpose for the proposed seismic testing other than to facilitate oil and gas development off the East Coast of the United States,” Gergel wrote.
A spokeswoman for the federal fisheries agency being sued in the case declined to comment on the litigation.
On Tuesday, the president moved in the opposite direction, saying he was putting the waters around Florida, Georgia and South Carolina under a drilling moratorium. His official memorandum says the ban will start in 2022 and end in 2032.
Five companies had already received the first needed permit to do seismic air blasting, however, with pending applications for the second and final one. A sixth, Texas-based WesternGeco, was further behind in the permitting process but told the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management on Sept. 4 that it was withdrawing its application entirely, according to a letter the company wrote.
A vice president for WesternGeco did not immediately answer a phone message.
The surveys are the first step before potentially extracting oil or natural gas from under the Atlantic. Environmental groups have opposed the testing, which shoots air guns at the ocean floor to map it, saying the work harms endangered marine mammals like the North Atlantic right whale.
While Trump’s Tuesday memo said South Carolina, Georgia and Florida would all be removed from leases for oil drilling or exploration starting in 2022, it was less specific on seismic testing prior to that date.
“I think Judge Gergel was right on to ask the government to explain what it means for seismic (testing),” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney on the lawsuit with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“I don’t think it makes any sense at all to do seismic testing in waters where we know we won’t have leasing until 2032,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, a seismic testing trade group, said the association was still assessing the president’s no-drill order and would not comment on the pending lawsuit in Charleston.
Trump’s most recent memo also said little about what it means for South Carolina for the next two years, before it goes into effect. Trump had previously tried to undo an Obama-era move to remove the waters off the Palmetto State from potential drilling leases.
Robert Kittle, a spokesman for the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, said the Obama plan is still in place because South Carolina is in the midst of challenging the state’s removal.