State regulators in both Carolinas have signed off on their first federal permits to allow companies to conduct seismic testing for oil and natural gas off the Carolinas coast — subject to some conditions.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control last Friday certified a permit sought by Spectrum GEO. The previous week the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources approved permits for both Spectrum and GX Technology.
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The companies had applied to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for permits to use seismic air guns to survey for oil and natural gas off the Atlantic coast.
While state waters extend only 3 miles offshore and the testing will be done in federal waters much farther offshore, each state was allowed to review whether the testing is consistent with state coastal programs.
Conservation groups have said air guns that send sound waves through the water could harm right whales and sea turtles and is inconsistent with the state programs.
In South Carolina the approval is conditional on no surveys being conducted from April through early September, the sea turtle nesting season. And there can be no surveying in waters shallower than about 100 feet, which would be an area no closer than about 46 miles offshore.
The company will have to also coordinate with states regulators and avoid protected marine areas off the coast.
Regulators in North Carolina found that the testing is consistent with the coastal zone program as long as important fish refuge and spawning areas are avoided.
North Carolina is also requiring that survey activity avoid offshore fishing tournaments and major recreational fishing areas and that the companies adhere to Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management mitigation guidelines approved last year.
Those rules, among others, provide for closure areas to protect the main migratory routes for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.
The federal agency is reviewing if and where oil and gas leases might be issued on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf between 2017 and 2022.
State decisions to approve the surveying permits can be appealed to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of General Counsel.
Two other companies in each state are also seeking certifications.
Advocates of offshore drilling say it will help meet the nation's energy needs and mean jobs and revenues for the states. Opponents worry about spills and the effects on the environment and coastal tourism.
More than 20 communities in the Carolinas, including Charleston, are on record opposing offshore seismic testing or drilling.