State regulators refused Thursday to take up an appeal to a federal permitting process that could allow underwater seismic testing off the S.C. coast, leaving the courts as the next possible alternative for opponents of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.
The Coastal Conservation League, three cities – Charleston, Folly Beach and Beaufort – along with the Wildlife Federation and a Mount Pleasant seafood business had asked DHEC’s board of directors to override agency staffers’ recommendation to approve several permits to allow seismic testing, a precursor to offshore drilling.
With minimal discussion Thursday, the DHEC board refused to wade into a debate about the merits of seismic testing or offshore drilling, to the chagrin of the groups opposing the energy exploration.
“We’ll have to decide whether or not we’re going to appeal this to the Administrative Law Court,” said Hamilton Davis, Coastal Conservation League energy program director, “and that’s being discussed right now. That’s the next step.”
DHEC’s final review committee said its decision to allow seismic surveying by Spectrum Geo Inc. is consistent with the state’s coastal zone policies.
“Our role is to ensure the proposed project is consistent with the policies of the South Carolina Coastal Zone Management Program,” said Cassandra Harris, DHEC spokeswoman. “The company submitted a determination that the proposed seismic survey project was consistent with the (program). DHEC’s review concluded that we were in concurrence with that determination.”
DHEC also said its agreement with Spectrum Geo.’s analyses were consistent with the agency’s duty to protect public health and the environment, including the state’s coastal shores and resources.
The federal government issued an OK for offshore oil and gas exploration in the south Atlantic Ocean last July. But companies must discover the oil and gas reserves before drilling would be permitted, according to the Obama administration. One of methods the federal government would allow in locating those reserves is seismic testing.
Controversial to many, the practice involves using sonic cannons to shoot sound waves louder than 100 jet engines through ocean waters to pinpoint the energy reserves below the ocean floor. That practice poses a danger to whales and turtles – endangered species, according to conservationists and others.
South Carolina, which has a $17 billion tourism industry anchored to its coast, was among several states that asked to review the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s decision to put in place a permitting process for the energy explorations.
The permits would be targeted for 2018, according to reports, and South Carolina will notify the ocean energy bureau of its actions taken on Thursday, DHEC said.
Conservationists seemed to react as badly to the words of one member of DHEC’s review committee as they did the decision itself.
“This appears to be more emotional involvement than factual involvement,” said review committee member Clarence Batts of Spartanburg, the board’s District 4 member, speaking of the opposition to the federal decision to permit exploration. “This type of work has been done for many years in many different areas without any sort of detriment to marine life,” Batts said in concurring with the agency’s recommendation not to oppose the exploration.
“That is pretty much a slap in the face to the huge diversity of experts and stakeholders that are looking at the science and saying this is a real problem for South Carolina, that is going to lead to offshore oil and gas drilling, which is an even bigger problem,” Davis said.
Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398. Twitter: @RoddieBurris