Seismic search for oil in Atlantic Ocean looks dead for now

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Seismic exploration for oil and gas off the south Atlantic coast is unlikely to proceed this year because permits expire Nov. 30, federal officials and company representatives told a federal judge Thursday.

The testing shoots blasts of air, using the vibrations to map where oil and gas might be present below the ocean floor. Environmentalists sued in federal court in Charleston seeking to block the exploration because the work has been shown to harm marine animals like the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

President Donald Trump recently banned oil drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, reversing previous support. But lawyers for the U.S. Department of Commerce and five interested companies had still sought to proceed with testing.

The Post and Courier of Charleston reports that the government said in a Thursday hearing there’s no way to extend the permits after they expire on Nov. 30, meaning they will be moot before the case can go to trial.

Industry groups said it was impossible to get boats in the water before that date.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has not issued an order ending the litigation, but “as a practical matter, the case is over,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“We’re excited about this," she said. "It’s been a long battle for us and it’s a big victory for our waters and right whales,” she said.

A spokeswoman for industry group International Association of Geophysical Contractors declined to comment on the case, as did a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Services, which issued the permits at the center of the litigation.

There is nothing stopping the exploration companies from re-applying for permits to search in the new year.

Two types of permits are required to conduct the work. The permits at the center of the case were called Incidental Harassment Authorizations, or basically, permission to disturb sea life during seismic work.

“Since these companies can apply again, we need a more permanent, long-term ban on offshore drilling and seismic testing at the federal level,” said Alan Hancock of the Coastal Conservation League.