Opinion: Why I joined lawsuit to stop seismic testing off S.C. coast

Post and Courier
January 20, 2019

BY ALAN WILSON, SC Attorney General

I recently received a lot of attention when I joined a lawsuit to block seismic testing off the coast of South Carolina, so I wanted to explain my reasoning.

People who support offshore exploration see it as a way to bring in billions of dollars to South Carolina and make our country more energy independent. Opponents say it would cost billions of dollars to our state’s tourism and fishing industries as well as cause irreparable harm to the environment. I can see both sides to this issue, but when the stakes are this high we must be extra careful to not cause undue harm to our state. Also, I have a legal obligation as the state’s attorney to follow the law to the letter and make sure that others do the same.

Pretend for a moment that you own a large piece of property. Then say that another person owns an even larger piece of property next to yours. That person then tells you that they plan to blast, drill and develop their property and that this will financially benefit you. You think to yourself that this is great, but then you learn that there is a chance that it could cause you and your property to suffer cataclysmic harm. It might not – but it could.

You also learn that your neighbor has not done all the due diligence required by law to ensure that you are not harmed. At this point you would probably hire a lawyer to ensure that both you and your land are protected and that your neighbor follows the law to the letter.

That’s what is happening here. South Carolina is the landowner (3 miles out in the ocean) and the federal government is our next door neighbor (for the next 200 miles out). As the attorney for the state of South Carolina, it’s my job to protect our people and our state’s natural resources not just from actual harm but from the threat of harm. As our state’s attorney general, I am concerned that the federal government has not done an adequate environmental impact study. Seismic testing should not go forward until there’s been an objective, comprehensive study of the impact of the testing on South Carolina’s environment and economy.

You might also be asking, what is the possible harm in seismic testing? Seismic testing is a way to find where oil or natural gas might be located under the ground beneath the ocean. To do that testing, they fire air gun arrays at the ocean floor while towing receivers behind ships. Those air guns blast acoustic pulses at the ocean floor about every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for months at a time. The pulses produce extremely loud noises that can be heard hundreds and possibly thousands of miles away.

Those extremely loud pulses could irreparably harm the marine life off the South Carolina coast. Furthermore, the commercial and recreational fishing industries are worth about $600 million a year in South Carolina. Offshore exploration could also have a tremendous adverse impact on our tourism industry. The economic value of businesses making use of ocean and coastal waters in South Carolina is about $44 billion a year.

There’s also a question of whether the federal executive branch even has the constitutional authority to allow this testing and drilling. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress [not the President] shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting … Property belonging to the United States” [including property at the bottom of the ocean]. A federal law allows the president to remove lands from those that can be leased or sold for exploration, but only Congress can open those lands up for energy exploration. This is more prudent because it gives the people the ability to hold their elected representatives accountable for decisions made on the disposition of federal property.

As a conservative, I believe strongly in the need for energy independence, but I also believe in following the rule of law, regardless of who is president or which party is in control of Congress. I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risk with our state’s natural resources. Those beliefs must be balanced against each other.

Alan Wilson is the attorney general of South Carolina.


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