In a reversal of its approval for five previous permits for seismic surveys off the South Carolina coast for the sake of oil and gas exploration, the South Caroliona Department of health and Environmental Control has decided not to give its blessing to a more recent application.
WesternGeco is the most recent company to request permission to gather data about the seafloor through seismic blasting, a technology that utilizes intense sound blasts which go off every 10 to15 seconds for weeks or months at time. While the permitting process is technically done on a federal level through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that department looks to state agencies for input. In South Carolina, DHEC has been the agency working with NOAA and prior to their deadline for determination on the permit application, allowed for a 30-day public comment period.
According to DHEC, they received 1,720 responses during the public comment period. They stated that 100% of the responses were in opposition to WesternGeco’s permit application and seismic blasting as a whole. In addition to individual comments from the public, official statements of opposition were also made by 16 municipalities including the towns of Pawleys Island and Awendaw.
DHEC waited until June 8, the deadline for their opinion on WesternGeco’s application, to release their official determination.
“DHEC finds that the risks associated with 2D seismic surveying…are significant due to the known and unknown physiological and behavioral impacts to individual fish and sea turtles, populations and the ecosystems that support them,” DHEC said. “Additional research regarding these impacts is needed so that effective mitigation protocols can be developed and validated.”
The large voice of opposition was one of the first points mentioned in their lengthy determination. DHEC addressed several areas in which the “2D” seismic surveying is inconsistent with enforceable policies of the South Carolina Coastal Zone Management Program. Specifically, it is the program’s goals of protecting, restoring and enhancing the State’s coastal zone for future generations, long range effects regarding possible development as well as the potential for negative impacts on “unique natural areas” including the destruction of endangered species and degradation of water quality.
In the end, those opposing seismic surveys can thank sea turtles, coastal economy and lack of research for the legal legs on which DHEC stood in opposition to the application.
The air cannons used to conduct the surveys are incredibly loud and potentially destructive to wildlife. It was a lack of true understanding regarding those impacts which drove the environmental concerns. Some of the marine species believed to be at adversely affected by seismic surveys are the Blue Whale, Fin Whale, North Atlantic Right Whale, Sperm Whale as well as the Green, Kemp’s Ridley, Leatherback and Loggerhead Sea Turtles.
DHEC also cites a NOAA study which found commercial fish catches were reduced up to 70 percent up to five days after a seismic survey in the area. Another study found a 78 percent decline in snapper grouper complex species in their regular reef habitation areas after seismic surveys. They also found noise levels from seismic surveys exceeded 170 decibels before the instruments were overloaded by the noise. It was estimated the noise experienced by the fish was between 202-230 decibels and that important functions such as foraging and mating might be disrupted as a result.
It is worth noting DHEC has previously approved five permit applications for other companies. However, they admit in their most recent determination that more information has become available since their previous decisions, including recent studies, which has altered their opinion on seismic surveys and their impacts.
NOAA and the Bureau of Energy and Ocean Management are not bound to the determinations of DHEC or other state’s opinions. The Secretary of Commerce may override DHEC’s objection if national security is an issue or disagree with DHEC’s assessment of inconsistency with the objectives of the South Carolina Coastal Zone Management Plan.