Several companies have submitted federal permit requests to the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to conduct seismic surveys in the federal waters of the Atlantic Ocean which is more than 3 nautical miles off the South Carolina coast. If granted by the federal government, the permit for seismic surveying would be valid for one year. The activities currently under review by the federal government do not authorize the installation of infrastructure, drilling or any other development activity other than seismic surveys.
In 2008, the federal moratorium on oil and gas development activities along the U.S. East Coast was lifted. Subsequently, Congress mandated that BOEM evaluate the environmental impact of geological and geophysical (G&G) activities in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2014, BOEM released the Atlantic Geological and Geophysical Activities Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which evaluated environmental impacts from potential seismic activities, and identified mitigation and monitoring measures to avoid, reduce or minimize those impacts. In January 2015, BOEM proposed opening areas of the Atlantic Ocean within federal jurisdiction to oil and gas development leases.
In 2014, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) made a request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is the entity that administers the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act, to review the federal permit applications for seismic surveying to ensure consistency with South Carolina's coastal zone management policies. While the proposed seismic surveying would take place outside of DHEC's regulatory jurisdiction (which is limited to 3 nautical miles off the coast), the agency was granted limited authority to review and comment on 2 elements of the federal permit application: the potential impacts of the seismic surveying on sea turtles and on commercial and recreational fisheries.
When reviewing a federal permit application in federal jurisdiction, DHEC evaluates BOEM's existing body of research and environmental impact statement to ensure it has adequately addressed the potential risks of the proposed activity to South Carolina's resources. If DHEC disagrees with BOEM's evaluation, then substantiated, scientific data must be provided that is above and beyond the data already considered and must show direct causal link between the proposed activity in federal waters and an acute impact on resources within South Carolina waters.
Over the course of the last year, DHEC worked closely with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council to determine if scientific data was available that could inform the federal permitting decision. No additional scientific data was provided to substantiate an acute impact on resources within South Carolina waters or an inconsistency with the South Carolina Coastal Management Program. However, data was provided that allowed DHEC to impose specific conditions on the federal permit application to ensure seismic activities conducted under the permit are as protective of resources as possible. The conditions include additional protection measures to avoid impacts on sea turtles and on commercially and recreationally important fish species. Specifically, the DHEC imposed conditions limit seismic surveying activities from occurring during turtle mating season (April through September) and within 40 nautical miles of shoreline. Additionally, conditions limit activities within Marine Protected Areas.
While it is expected that the final decision by the federal government on whether or not to open these areas in federal waters for development leases will not likely come for another 1 to 2 years, this timeline is subject to change.
Individuals, municipal governments and organizations seeking to make their voices heard on the draft federal permit request to conduct seismic surveys can contact their U.S. Congressional representative.