The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Federal Court Prohibits Offshore Seismic Testing During Government Shutdown

  • January 24th, 2019 — by Amanda Nichols — Category: Environmental Law

  • On January 21, the U.S. District Court in South Carolina blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to continue preparatory work for offshore drilling during the federal government’s partial shutdown. This ruling comes in response to a decision from the Trump administration issued earlier this month that called back Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) workers to continue processing offshore seismic testing permits in the Atlantic. The testing, which involves loud airgun blasts underwater, is a precursor to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, and is opposed by many coastal communities in South Carolina due to its potential to cause environmental harm. On November 30, 2018, the federal government announced it would allow companies to seismically test for offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, granting five permits to search the ocean floor for oil and gas from Delaware to Florida.

    The January 21 decision was issued in response to a motion filed by a range of South Carolinian coastal cities, businesses, and conservation organizations that are currently suing the Trump administration over its November decision to allow seismic testing. The federal defendants sought to stay the motion, arguing they did not have the resources they needed to work on the case due to the shutdown. Although the court granted the stay, it effectively halted federal workers from moving forward on any oil drilling matters until the government reopens and is funded. Specifically, the order prevents the federal defendants, BOEM, and any other federal agency or entity from acting to “promulgate permits, otherwise approve, or take any other official action regarding the pending permit applications for oil and gas surveys in the Atlantic.”

    BOEM has stated that the agency will comply with the judge’s order, but could not comment further due to the pending litigation. Critics of the decision point out that the offshore energy industry generates billions of dollars for the U.S. and state treasuries, providing thousands of well-paying jobs and bolstering national energy security. However, proponents of the decision argue that the administration’s first priority should be re-opening the government, not pursuing “dangerous and unwanted” seismic airgun blasting.

    Although the order halts seismic testing during the government shutdown, lawsuits challenging the validity of the government’s decision to allow the practice must still be decided upon. The two pending federal lawsuits in South Carolina argue that seismic testing would harm whales, dolphins, and other marine life, thereby violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuits further allege that such damage to ocean fauna could cause economic harm in the state, where coastal communities bring in tens of billions of dollars annually. In December, New Jersey joined numerous other East Coast states including Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia in their own lawsuit against the federal allowance of seismic testing. The decisions in these cases will help determine whether the Trump administration’s plan to greatly expand offshore drilling interests in federal waters will succeed.

  • Amanda Nichols
    Ocean and Coastal Law Fellow

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