U.S. drops offshore tests for oil in Atlantic - green groups

(Reuters) - Seismic tests that are a precursor to offshore oil drilling will not take place in U.S. Atlantic waters this year, and likely far longer, attorneys for environmental groups that sued the federal government to stop the testing said on Thursday.

The understanding between green groups, federal officials and companies that had been seeking permits to test for oil and gas deposits resulted from a status conference in the litigation held two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump banned offshore drilling off the coasts of several East Coast states.

The parties have until Oct. 5 to file briefs recommending how to dispense with the case, according to an order by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel of federal court in South Carolina.

Trump’s executive order on drilling did not affect four permits for seismic testing that have been under review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, federal attorneys said in court papers last month.

However, secondary permits issued in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s fisheries division allowing the incidental harassment of marine mammals with air gun blasts are set to expire Nov. 30 and cannot be extended, raising “mootness questions” regarding the permits, the court papers said. The litigation between environmental groups and the Commerce Department targeted those permits.

“It is essentially a certainty that Atlantic seismic is not going be happening any time soon,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the federal government in the lawsuit, said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

The International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the trade group representing seismic testing companies, also said it would not comment because the litigation was still pending.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by David Gregorio and Daniel Wallis