February 19, 2020 / 1:01 AM / 2 months ago

Judge allows South Carolina suit over offshore tests to proceed

(Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that some of the claims raised by South Carolina in a lawsuit against the Trump administration over seismic tests for oil and gas deposits in Atlantic waters may proceed, but dismissed four others.

Coastal states and environmental groups have taken legal steps to try to block Trump administration efforts to open up the U.S. East Coast to offshore oil and gas exploration.

The United States is still processing permit applications for companies to conduct seismic testing - a precursor to drilling and the subject of the lawsuit - despite shelving its plan to vastly expand offshore drilling.

U.S. District Judge Richard Mark Gergel in South Carolina ruled that the state’s claim that President Donald Trump lacked the power to extend offshore oil and gas drilling to areas that had been placed off limits by his predecessor, Barack Obama, may move forward.

The Trump administration had asked the judge to dismiss South Carolina’s claims in the suit.

In the ruling, Gergel said the U.S. government’s motion to dismiss the claims “quite strikingly” failed to state that a federal judge in Alaska last year overturned Trump’s attempt to open the Atlantic to oil and gas leasing and that the administration shortly thereafter put its efforts to expand oil and gas exploration there on hold.

“I would like to thank Judge Gergel for allowing South Carolina’s claims to go forward,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement.

Environmental groups sued U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in 2018 seeking to prevent seismic testing, which uses air- gun blasts to identify areas to drill. They argued the practice violated federal laws that protect marine mammals and endangered species, and national environmental policy.

South Carolina joined the lawsuit later and raised additional claims. The state also included nuisance, trespass and admiralty claims that Gergel dismissed on Tuesday.

In 2018, the U.S. fisheries service, which falls under the Commerce Department, gave initial permission to five companies to conduct seismic air-gun tests. The permits allow marine wildlife to be harassed but not killed.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has yet to issue the final permits for seismic testing.

Officials at BOEM and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were not immediately available for comment.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Peter Cooney

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