Coastal Review Online: Seismic testing for oil, natural gas on hold as permits will expire

A ship trails an array of seismic air guns. [photo courtesy Ocean Conservation Research]

Permits needed to conduct seismic exploration for oil and natural gas off the East Coast expire next month and cannot be extended.

Environmental advocates engaged in a yearslong fight against seismic testing on the Atlantic outer continental shelf announced that during a hearing related to their case Thursday,  government lawyers acknowledged that there’s no mechanism for extending federal incidental harassment authorizations that expire Nov. 30. The IHAs allow harm to species covered under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that are at risk during seismic survey.

“Once the IHAs expire, there are no statutory or regulatory mechanisms for extending the specific IHAs at issue here and no basis for reissuing or renewing them,” according to the federal defendants’ status report filing with the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division.

Lawyers representing the seismic industry said during the hearing that it isn’t feasible to begin testing before the permits expire.

Sixteen South Carolina coastal communities and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce filed that lawsuit in December 2018 seeking to prevent seismic testing.

The groups include the North Carolina Coastal Federation, publisher of Coastal Review Online.

The challenge was later merged with a related case, and 10 attorneys general from East Coast states, including Josh Stein of North Carolina, intervened in the combined lawsuits.

“This is a huge victory not just for us but for every coastal community that loudly and persistently protested the possibility of seismic blasting,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There will be no boats in the water this year, and because this resets the clock, there will be no boats in the water for a long time. And we’ll continue fighting to keep it that way.”

President Trump recently extended a moratorium on new offshore drilling to include North Carolina and Virginia.

Last week, the Department of Justice filed a document stating that Trump’s action  had “no legal effect” on the status of the applications to conduct seismic surveys in the Atlantic outer continental shelf that were pending before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. IHAs for the proposed exploration were issued to five companies in November 2018.

One of those companies, WesternGeco, told the BOEM last month it was withdrawing its application to conduct testing.

Government lawyers are seeking a stay until Dec. 14, two weeks after the IHAs expire, to allow discussion on how the case should proceed.