Environment

SC attorney general joins lawsuit to stop seismic testing, offshore drilling

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson joined a lawsuit Monday against the Trump administration to block seismic testing for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast.

Backed by GOP Gov. Henry McMaster, Wilson became the first Republican attorney general to join a legal fight — launched by 16 S.C. cities, nine environmental groups and nine Democratic state attorneys general — to halt permits for exploration off the Atlantic Coast. Those suing say exploration will harm the environment and South Carolina tourism.

Wilson’s filing unites an unlikely coalition in opposition to one of President Donald Trump’s highest priorities — expanding efforts to find new deposits of fossil fuels — as the Republican president seeks to roll back Obama-era regulations that blocked drilling on more than 90 percent of the outer continental shelf.

It also signals a political rebellion of sorts by two top elected S.C. Republican officials who supported Trump — Wilson and McMaster.

The issue of offshore drilling — and the harm it could do to the coastal environment — is important to South Carolina, where tourism is one of the largest industries. Many coastal communities fear the drilling that could follow seismic testing could result in oil spills, driving away vacationers and harming businesses.

Seismic testing also is a concern because its unceasing booming noises could kill thousands of dolphins, whales and fish, according to the lawsuit. Seismic testing to locate oil deposits involves using airguns to blast acoustic pulses at the ocean floor — every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day — for months at a time, Wilson’s suit says.

The testing would “irreparably harm marine life, in large numbers and with a large impact,” hurting S.C. communities and businesses that rely on marine life “for their economic livelihoods,” Wilson wrote.

For months, Gov. McMaster has pleaded with the Trump administration to exempt South Carolina from drilling. However, only Florida has been exempted. Critics charge that move was made to help then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, in his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Several S.C. lawmakers also have filed proposals in the General Assembly to block or impede offshore drilling.

“The governor supports the attorney general taking any and all action necessary to ensure that we will never see any seismic testing or drilling off the South Carolina coast,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes told The State. “The governor will continue to utilize the open line of communication he has with the (Trump) administration. He has also spoken with members of the General Assembly and expressed his support for any legislative action that may be used to remedy the situation.”

In November, Democrat Joe Cunningham’s surprise victory in South Carolina’s 1st District illustrated just how alarmed the public has become by the specter of offshore drilling. The 1st District includes coastal communities from Charleston to Hilton Head. Cunningham’s opposition to drilling was a decisive factor in that district electing a Democrat to the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years.

“(O)pposition to offshore drilling has bipartisan consensus,” Cunningham said in a statement, “and I support the attorney general’s efforts to protect our vibrant natural resources, environment and economy from the devastating effects of oil and gas exploration.”

Last January, the Trump administration said it would allow new oil and gas drilling in nearly all U.S. waters, reversing a drilling ban imposed by former Democratic President Barack Obama. Trump said the drilling ban quashed “potentially thousands and thousands of jobs.”

In November, federal regulators gave companies the go-ahead to apply for five permits to conduct seismic testing in the Atlantic. The consolidated lawsuit seeks to stop that process.

A judge must approve Wilson’s attempt to intervene in the existing lawsuit.

But Wilson’s entry into the case was praised by the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing environmental groups that are fighting testing.

“It says to President Trump what we’ve been saying all along,’‘ said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with the Charleston law center. “He’s not listening to the people and the officials, even in his own party, who do not want this off of South Carolina.’‘

Amy Armstrong, a Pawleys Island attorney handling the suit on behalf of 16 S.C. cities, said Wilson’s entry will help efforts to stop seismic testing, showing it is a nonpartisan issue.

“This state joining in ... sends the message that we don’t want this in South Carolina,’’ said Armstrong, director of the non-profit S.C. Environmental Law Project.

Most S.C. coastal cities, excluding Myrtle Beach, are part of Armstrong’s case.

“The federal government acknowledges that there are going to be over 300,000 individual marine mammals that will be harmed or harassed by’’ seismic testing, she said. “They’re hurting whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine species.”

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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