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Judge’s ruling likely ends seismic testing off coast for years

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Seismic testing off the coast of South Carolina is likely finished for several years after a federal judge dismissed a 2018 lawsuit on Tuesday.

The suit, filed by the Coastal Conservation League, took aim at the National Marine Fisheries Service for issuing preliminary seismic testing permits off the state’s coast.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel dismissed the suit because there are currently no pending applications for either of the two permits needed to proceed with seismic testing, and a Nov. 30 application deadline for one, coupled with a lengthy approval process, means any approvals would be moot by the time a trial occurred, Gergel said.

The permit at the heart of the lawsuit was the Incidental Harassment Authorization permit, which essentially allows for the disruption of marine life, according to Mike Mather, senior communications manager for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“With Judge Gergel’s order, South Carolina and the entire Atlantic Coast will be protected for the next several years at least from seismic air gun blasting at the ocean floor looking for oil and gas deposits,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce. He and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson spoke at a news conference outside the Statehouse on Tuesday.

Gergel dismissed the suit without prejudice, meaning the defendants have 60 days to decide whether they want to refile. State leaders are already celebrating it as a win based on the timing.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 11, 2018, was submitted days after the National Marine Fisheries Service authorized five companies to conduct seismic air gun surveys off the state’s coast — precursors to oil and drilling exploration that the order said would disturb more than 34 species of marine life.

Wilson joined the lawsuit, along with 16 coastal cities and eight environmental groups.

“All of us coming together as South Carolinians sends a strong message to the federal government, as well as to other states, that we will not lie down when it comes to protecting our state and our coastal area,” Wilson said.

While seismic testing companies can refile for permits in 2021, Mather said there would be a lack of oil company clients interested with President Donald Trump’s 10-year moratorium on offshore drilling taking effect in July 2022.

As the court said in its order, it is aware of no practical purpose for seismic testing on the outer continental shelf other than as a prelude to offshore exploration and development.

“Since that is no longer occurring, I think the court was correct in issuing this dismissal,” Wilson said.

Reach Teri Errico Griffis at 843-849-3144.

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