Several companies have submitted federal permit applications 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 permits 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 with the initiation of the Draft 2017-2022 OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) Oil and Gas Leasing Program. In March 2016 after extensive public input and comment, BOEM published the Proposed 2017-2022 OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which removed oil and gas leasing from the Mid- and South-Atlantic Planning Areas. In January 2017, the 2017-2022 OCS Oil and Gas Leasing program was approved by the Obama Administration, with exclusion of lease sales in certain areas, including the Atlantic Ocean. However, on April 28, 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order which eliminated the previous Administration's OCS leasing withdrawals. As a result, BOEM has rescinded the denial of the federal permit applications, which are now undergoing review by federal agencies. Visit BOEM's website for additional information on currently submitted Atlantic OCS Region Permits.
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.
DHEC has 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.
Individuals, municipal governments and organizations seeking to make their voices heard on the federal permit applications to conduct seismic surveys can contact their U.S. Congressional representative.
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has received multiple requests for authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to take marine mammals incidental to conducting geophysical survey activities in the Atlantic Ocean. Pursuant to the MMPA, NMFS is requesting comments on its proposal to issue IHAs to incidentally take marine mammals during the specified activities. NMFS has announced, and extended, a 30-day public comment period which now runs until July 21, 2017.
On July 3, 2017, BOEM published a Request for Information and Comments on the Preparation of the 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program in the Federal Register. The 60-day public comment period is open until August 17, 2017.