South Carolina Coastal Cities Fight Trump Over Seismic Oil Exploration

(CN) – Sixteen South Carolina coastal cities teamed up with environmentalists to file lawsuits against the Trump administration aiming to stop offshore oil exploration, arguing that seismic testing will devastate marine life and the coastal economy. 

On Tuesday, the municipalities and nine environmental groups filed a pair of complaints in Charleston federal court hoping to reverse the administration’s approval of exploration along the Atlantic Coast.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, and U.S.Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross issued permits last month to five companies allowing them to use seismic air guns to find oil and gas formations deep underneath the Atlantic Ocean.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management must also grant permits to oil and gas surveyors before seismic testing can proceed.

The complaint filed by the environmentalists, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, argues that the NMFS violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act by issuing the permits. The groups are represented by their in-house attorneys.

Diane Hoskins of Oceana, another one of the conservationist plaintiffs, said in a statement that the White House’s authorization of the oil exploration is unlawful and her group vows to stop it.  

“The Trump administration’s rash decision to harm marine mammals hundreds of thousands of times in the hope of finding oil and gas is shortsighted and dangerous,” she said. “Seismic airgun blasting can harm everything from tiny zooplankton and fish to dolphins and whales. More than 90 percent of the coastal municipalities in the blast zone have publicly opposed seismic airgun blasting of their coast. We won this fight before and we’ll win it again.”

Oceana’s recent economic analysis found that offshore drilling activities, including seismic airgun blasting, along the Atlantic Coast threaten over 1.5 million jobs and nearly $108 billion in GDP, and could yield less than seven months’ worth of oil and less than six months’ worth of gas.

In the search for oil and gas, seismic airguns deploy loud blasts to the seabed in 10-second intervals 24 hours a day during the duration of the exploration process to map deep geological formations.

Environmentalists claim the loud noises produced by the blasting can disturb, injure and even kill whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other wildlife species. 

The highly endangered North American right whale population is particularly vulnerable and could even face extinction. According to the complaint, blasting the ocean floor can deafen dolphins and whales which rely on sound to communicate, forage for food and reproduce. It can also kill fish larvae and cause habitat abandonment.

“The ocean is an acoustic world. Sound travels far more efficiently underwater than through the air,” the lawsuit states. “Whales,dolphins, and other marine species depend on sound to find mates, forage, avoid predators, navigate, and communicate—in short, for virtually every vital life function. Ocean species are acutely sensitive to acoustic disturbance, which can disrupt or prevent these vital activities.”

The municipalities’ lawsuit makes identical claims and is headed by Beaufort, located on one of South Carolina’s coastal islands. The cities are represented by attorneys with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

The Trump administration granted the permits on Nov. 30, dismantling former President Barack Obama’s 2016 order banning offshore drilling in parts of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.   

In South Carolina and other states, Republicans and Democrats have aligned to stop the seismic surveys. Even South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, an outspoken supporter of the Trump administration,has joined the effort to halt the offshore exploration, although he was not a party to the cities’ lawsuit Tuesday.  

Reid Porter, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, fired back against the lawsuits, arguing the U.S. needs to know what oil and gas reserves exist off the coast.

He said there have been dramatic technological advancements since the last seismic tests were done 30 years ago. Porter claims that safeguards are implemented to protect marine life and there is no evidence to support that seismic surveys negatively impact wildlife populations.

“Before operations begin, trained marine mammal observers check for marine mammals and other species within a specified precautionary exclusion zone. Other mitigation measures used to complement visual monitoring include passive acoustic monitoring, as well as power-downs and shut-downs when marine animals enter the exclusion zones,” Porter said via email.

Porter pointed to the Gulf of Mexico,where he said testing has been successfully done for more than 50 years and there is no data to support claims of marine animal population declines.

“The oil and natural gas industry remains committed to improving the scientific understanding of the impacts of our operations on marine life, while responsibly producing oil and gas resources to meet our nation’s energy needs,” he said.

Governors from every coastal state from Florida to New Hampshire have publicly opposed offshore oil exploration. Along with their state leaders,240 East Coast municipalities, more than 1,500 local, state and federal officials, and all three East Coast Fishery Management Councils and several commercial and recreational fishing organization have join the push to halt the action.

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