Energy & Environment

Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium

Testing for offshore oil and gas isn’t preempted in states where there’s a temporary ban on drilling, the federal government said in court filings this week

Federal lawyers said testing is governed separately from drilling, so the government may issue permits for this activity, including through a process called seismic testing. 

Seismic testing uses blasts from air guns to try to detect oil and gas deposits in the ocean. Environmentalists have raised concerns about the practice’s impacts on marine life. 

The filing said that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management can “authorize seismic surveys in the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”) even in areas of the OCS that are not open to oil and gas exploration under the … leasing process.”

“Entities seeking to conduct seismic surveys can therefore obtain a permit in any area of the OCS, including those areas that have been withdrawn from leasing,” it said. 

The government’s announcement follows a decision by President Trump to prevent drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina until mid-2032. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis (R) has said his state will also be included. 

The court filing came in response to a request from the court to clarify whether the moratorium changes the proposed plan to proceed with seismic testing by five companies. 

It’s part of a lawsuit filed by green groups challenging key approvals received by the companies. 

Kristen Monsell, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, criticized the filing and argued that it could hint that the government is planning a post-election reversal of the ban. 

“The new filing is perfectly consistent with a scenario in which Trump reverses course yet again and opens every part of the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling,” Monsell said. 

“Seismic testing’s sonic blasts harm whales and other marine life, and they set the stage for future drilling and devastating oil spills,” she added.  

The Interior Department is insisting that the moratorium will remain in place. 

“President Trump’s memorandum prohibits all leasing activity off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. As such, there will be no oil and gas development in these areas through at least 2032,” said department solicitor Dan Jorjani in a statement. 

The decision to pause offshore drilling in these states was seen by many as an election year move to court voters in Florida, a key swing state where offshore drilling has strong bipartisan opposition. 

In North Carolina, Tillis is behind in polls in his reelection bid to Democrat Cal Cunningham, and Trump could also face a tough reelection. 

Tags Donald Trump Thom Tillis

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