Judge blocks Trump administration from processing permits for offshore seismic tests

A federal judge in South Carolina on Friday blocked the Trump administration from processing seismic testing permits for offshore oil drilling, a setback for the administration’s efforts to assist energy companies during the partial government shutdown.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel issued an injunction that stops the Interior Department “from taking action to promulgate permits ... or take any other official action regarding the pending permit applications for oil and gas surveys in the Atlantic” until after the government shutdown ends.

Gergel’s injunction came after South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson learned that the Interior Department had ordered employees of its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to come back to work and process permits for five companies that want to use airgun blasts to search for oil. The attorney general’s office brought that to the attention of the federal judge, leading to Friday’s ruling.

“We appreciate Judge Gergel’s prudent ruling on this issue,” Wilson said in a statement. “It’s common sense that if the federal government is shut down and doesn’t have the resources to perform most of its normal functions then it doesn’t have the resources to start this proposed seismic testing offshore.”

There was no immediate comment from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which, like other federal agencies, has furloughed the bulk of its communications staff.

Although the Interior Department has halted some work on energy development permits during the shutdown, it is still issuing permits for oil companies to drill wells on federal land, in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. It is also going forward with public meetings on oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other parts of Alaska, generating a backlash from environmental groups.

States and cities on both sides of the country have filed lawsuits trying to stop the administration’s offshore oil drilling plans. Earlier this month, Wilson became the first Republican attorney general to join other states in trying to block the Atlantic Coast seismic testing. The other states include Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

Wilson had asked the court for a pause in the proceedings so South Carolina could join the lawsuit. Government lawyers responded that they could not properly respond to Wilson’s request because of the shutdown. When the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had issued a directive for workers to keep processing permits, that created an opening for South Carolina to argue it was being treated unfairly.

Under Gergel’s ruling, the injunction ”shall remain in effect until funds have been appropriated for the Department of Justice and all Federal Defendants, the Court has received the Federal Defendants’ responses to the pending motions to intervene, and the Court has ruled on those motions.”

Environmental groups, who have also sued to stop the testing, applauded the decision.

“The government was trying to have its cake and eat it too, and we’re pleased the court did not allow that to happen,” said Laura Cantral, executive director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-South Carolina, a freshman lawmaker who represents the coastal 1st District that includes Charleston, welcomed the news but underscored it’s no substitute for a “permanent solution to the threat of dangerous and unwanted offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting.”

In a statement, Cunningham praised the court ruling and pitched his bill that would put a 10-year moratorium on both practices off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

“I urge Congress to pass this legislation as soon as possible,” he said.

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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Stuart Leavenworth is a national correspondent for McClatchy, covering the environment, science, energy and other assignments. He landed in DC in 2017 after three years in China, as McClatchy’s Beijing Bureau Chief. Previously he worked at The Sacramento Bee and (Raleigh) News & Observer. His work has been recognized by the National Press Foundation, Best of the West and other journalism groups.