Court blocks offshore oil testing permits during shutdown

Court blocks offshore oil testing permits during shutdown
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A federal court on Friday blocked the Trump administration from issuing any permits to conduct seismic testing for offshore oil and natural gas drilling during the partial government shutdown.

Judge Richard Gergel of the District Court for South Carolina issued the order as part of an ongoing challenge by environmental groups and Democratic states to the administration’s November move toward allowing the testing.

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He ruled that all federal agencies are prohibited "from taking action to promulgate permits, otherwise approve, or take any other official action” on the applications at issue.

Justice Department attorneys representing the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had asked Gergel to pause the case during the shutdown because they could not write filings.

Gergel granted that pause, but said that the same logic means BOEM should be prohibited from granting any permits until the government reopens.

He noted that last week Interior asked furloughed employees to return to work in order to process the seismic testing applications.

“It requires little imagination to realize that the returning BOEM employees could act on the pending applications and seismic testing could commence during the pendency of the stay,” he wrote in his order.

He ruled that all federal agencies are prohibited from taking action to promulgate permits, otherwise approve, or take any other official action” on the applications at issue.

BOEM spokeswoman Connie Gillette said the agency is aware of the order and will comply.

The November action gave five companies permission to potentially harm or harass marine species when they do their testing. It is a necessary step before the BOEM can issue testing permits.

Federal attorneys had told the judge previously that the BOEM would not issue testing permits during the shutdown.

But the agency later updated its shutdown plan to bring in employees to work on the permits, and attorneys told the court that the permits might be issued as early as March 1.

Companies want to test the ocean floor in the Atlantic to see how much oil or natural gas is underneath. The Trump administration has proposed allowing drilling in the Atlantic for the first time since the 1980s, but hasn’t allowed any drilling yet.

Laura Cantral, executive director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, said the order is a victory.

“This is an issue of critical importance to the coast, and one that must be handled openly, transparently, and fairly,” she said in a statement. “This ruling will allow that to happen, and that is good for all concerned.”

The group is one of the leading litigants in the case. They and their allies argue that the testing is harmful to numerous ocean species such as whales and dolphins.

— Updated at 4:10 p.m.