SC communities ask state to reconsider decisions that cleared way for oil exploration

Hilton Head Island Packet
August 7, 2019

By Stephen Fastenau

We asked these Lowcountry residents for their opinion on offshore drilling at a forum on the subject sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Coastal Conservation League at the Hilton Head Library on Feb. 1. Here’s what they had to say. By Jay Karr

Beaufort County communities working to block drilling off the S.C. coast asked state regulators this week to reconsider past decisions clearing the way for oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control should work with federal regulators to look again at whether three companies’ requests to conduct seismic testing adhere to state coastal policy, drilling opponents said in a letter to the state agency Tuesday.

Starting with Beaufort in early 2015, every coastal city in South Carolina has formally opposed seismic testing and drilling because of the potential to pollute the ocean and beaches that are cornerstones of the state’s $20 billion tourism industry.

Opponents lobbied against Obama administration plans and continued after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. The Trump administration announced plans to expand drilling in the Artic and Atlantic before stepping back in April after legal challenges.

Despite the opposition, state regulators in 2015 found that the three companies’ plans could move forward, with conditions to lessen the effect on turtle nesting season and other marine life. But in a recent decision, state environmental officials cited new research and unanimous public opposition in objecting to a similar request from a geological surveying company.

That decision was the basis for a letter to DHEC from 16 coastal towns — including Beaufort County municipalities — and the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce urging another look at the past decisions.

“They have now pulled back and changed their position on this new permit; why wouldn’t they change their position on (the others)?” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said.

DHEC acknowledged receiving the letter Tuesday and said in a statement it will respond publicly after “carefully reviewing the concerns.”

The agency told WesternGeco in July that its proposal to explore for oil and gas off the S.C. Coast wasn’t compatible with state policy and involved to much unknown risk to marine life and coastal economies.

The group of municipalities and small business leaders that sent the letter this week previously filed legal challenges in federal court saying the offshore testing violates federal law regarding marine animals.

Seismic testing involves boats towing an air gun along the surface and sending regular loud blasts to the ocean floor to collect data on potential oil and gas deposits.

In the letter on behalf of the towns and business leaders, the S.C. Environmental Law Project cited numerous court papers the organization has filed in the federal case from scientists sharing opinions on the adverse effects of the testing.

Proposed testing could affect fish populations and a single pass from a boat conducting the testing could injure and kill scallops and species of zooplankton, according to research cited in the letter.

Since 2015, “the availability of specific data on the severe impacts of this activity has been vastly increased,” S.C. Environmental Law Project director Amy Armstrong wrote on behalf of the group. “Dozens of new studies have been published shedding light on the magnitude of the impacts to the marine environment and economy.”

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