June 26, 2017
By Samantha Page
South Carolina’s republican governor has publicly come out in opposition to seismic testing off the southeastern coast, siding with the state’s fishermen, business community, and environmentalists.
As the Trump administration prepares to issue permits for seismic testing along the Eastern Seaboard, there is concern for the region’s fish and marine mammal populations. Seismic testing is the first step towards offshore oil and gas drilling, but multiple studies have shown that marine life, from shellfish to sea turtles to whales and dolphins, are negatively affected by the practice, which uses loud sonic booms to determine what substances lie beneath the ocean floor.
“I’m against it,” Henry McMaster said, in response to a question from a charter fisherman at a local Chamber of Commerce event last week. In his previous roles as state attorney general and lieutenant governor, McMaster has opposed offshore drilling, but this was his first public statement on the matter since taking office in January. His opposition is all the more remarkable considering he has routinely backed President Donald Trump, who is a driving force behind the re-emergence of an Eastern Seaboard drilling proposal.
The position — which was not shared by his predecessor and current U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, makes sense for the state. South Carolina’s economy is tightly bound to its coastal businesses, including billion-dollar fishing and tourism industries. Damage to coastal fisheries and hunting grounds would have a major impact on business in the state, and numerous groups, including the South and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils have voiced concern about seismic testing and drilling in the Atlantic.
That concern was only heightened when a new study came out late last week, showing that micro-organisms — such as plankton — are damaged by seismic testing.
Research published in Nature Ecology and Evolution found that the mortality rate for plankton is two to three times higher during seismic testing. These findings are particularly worrisome given the critical role plankton play in the ocean’s food chain.
“Zooplankton underpin the health and productivity of global marine ecosystems and what this research has shown is that commercial seismic surveys could cause significant disruption to their population levels,” the study’s lead author, Robert McCauley, said in a statement. The endangered Northern right whale eats zooplankton, and both its mating and calving grounds are in the proposed testing areas.
The Obama administration had looked at allowing oil drilling offshore from Virginia to Florida, but an upswell of opposition convinced officials to take the region out of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year plan for oil and gas development. Once the area was off-limits for drilling, seismic testing no longer made sense, and BOEM’s director at the time denied requests for permits.
But under the Trump administration, the Eastern Seaboard is back on the table. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said he is in favor of seismic testing, and under his direction, the National Marine Fisheries Service has re-opened the permitting process. There are five applications for seismic testing permits — or, more accurately, permits to allow “incidental take” by seismic testing companies — has been tentatively approved. The deadline for public comment is July 6.
Frank Knapp, founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, pointed out that if the South Carolina governor is serious about opposing seismic testing, he needs to file a comment with the feds.
“His unqualified, direct statement in opposition to seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic is the example that the Democratic governors of Virginia and North Carolina should emulate,” Knapp said in an email to ThinkProgress. “However, for his position to be formally considered by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the South Carolina Governor’s Office needs to submit it in writing.”