S.C. judge: Feds can't OK offshore seismic oil testing permits during shutdown

Offshore Oil Rigs (BSEE via MGN Online)

A judge in South Carolina has placed an injunction on President Trump's ocean energy bureau as legal challenges of seismic air-gun testing for offshore oil make their way through federal court.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel on Friday, Jan. 18, enjoined the U.S. Dept. of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), barring the agency from processing any offshore oil seismic air-gun testing permit requests while the government is shut down.

The injunction comes in response to the Trump administration recalling furloughed BOEM workers to continue processing oil surveying lease permit requests, even though the BOEM had asked federal judges to place holds on cases challenging the permitting in several states while the government was shut down.

Gergel ruled BOEM staff continuing to process the permits during the shutdown gave the federal government an "inappropriate" advantage over its challengers at the state and local levels, who would be left without legal recourse while the court cases were stayed.

"It requires little imagination to realize that the returning BOEM employees could act on the pending applications and seismic testing could commence during [...] the stay," Judge Gergel's Friday ruling reads in part. "In such a circumstance [...] states would be powerless to respond."

Litigation over seismic testing began in December 2018, when several states and municipalities within them sued the federal government over NOAA authorizing five companies to conduct seismic air-gun blast surveys for oil deposits beneath the Atlantic Ocean floor. The permits allow for incidental harm to marine life during surveying.

BOEM approval marked the last hurdle for the companies after NOAA's approval, as BOEM has the final say on granting leases for the federal underwater territories where the seismic testing would take place.

South Carolina and 16 of its coastal cities and towns, the state chamber of commerce and the Coastal Conservation League all filed a lawsuit against the federal government in early December over NOAA's decision to approve the permits.

The groups argue NOAA allowing seismic testing violates the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammals Protection Act and other federal regulations. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Virginia.

After the government shutdown began in December, the federal government asked for a stay of the lawsuits. That request initially came with assurance the Dept. of Interior wouldn't be acting on pending seismic testing permit requests until the shutdown ended and funding to department was restored.

But on January 16, news outlets across the country reported BOEM had recalled workers to continue processing permits. Challenged with these reports, BOEM attorneys admitted to the court the agency "may" continue processing applications and even issue a permit "as soon as March l, 2019."

Gergel's injunction Friday prevents that.

The ruling is being praised by Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-South Carolina), a lawmaker whose recent election to Congress many feel was cemented by his outspoken opposition to reopening Atlantic waters to offshore oil drilling and exploration.

Cunningham in November's election defeated Republican Katie Arrington, who'd been endorsed by President Trump, and supported the president's stance in favor of expanding offshore drilling and testing.

“I applaud the decision of the federal court to block the Trump Administration from issuing permits to conduct seismic testing during this government shutdown," Cunningham is quoted as saying in a news release from his staff Friday afternoon.

Cunningham on Jan. 8 introduced his first piece of legislation, the Coastal Economies Protection Act, which would place a ten-year moratorium on off-shore drilling and seismic airgun blasting off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

Opposition to offshore oil drilling and seismic testing has received bipartisan support in South Carolina. Several Republican mayors of coastal South Carolina cities and towns endorsed Cunningham ahead of the November election for his opposition to it.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, a staunch Trump ally, opposes offshore drilling, as does Republican state attorney general Alan Wilson, who joined the lawsuit against the federal government over the NOAA permit approvals.

President Trump in an April 2017 executive order instructed the Dept. of Interior to lift many restrictions on offshore oil drilling, testing and exploration to allow for expansion of the U.S. petroleum industry.

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