Federal Judge Richard Mark Gergel today barred the government from moving forward with seismic permitting during the shutdown, settling what critics say was the confusion the government created by recalling workers to process oil-drilling matters while at the same time not funding federal lawyers to respond to opponents in court.
Gergel issued an order "effectively saying that the government could not have it both ways," says a spokesperson for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
"His ruling concerned a Justice Department request for a pause — or stay — in a legal request by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to join a lawsuit filed by 16 South Carolina coastal cities and a group of conservation organizations."
Government lawyers said they could not properly respond to Wilson’s request because of the shutdown. However, Wilson noted that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had issued a directive for workers to keep processing a variety of matters needed to move forward with oil drilling.
That set up an unfair situation, Wilson argued, of allowing the government to move forward on a controversial project while also sidestepping legal challenges.
Judge Gergel granted the government’s request for a stay, but told federal lawyers the seismic permitting could not move forward during the shutdown and for the time it takes the Court to rule on Wilson’s motion.
"Practically, that means the case over the seismic permits will be on hold for the duration of the shutdown plus as many as 18 additional days to hear Wilson’s motion to intervene," SELC says.
“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, one of the groups suing to stop seismic blasting in the Atlantic. “This is an issue of critical importance to the coast, and one that must be handled openly, transparently, and fairly. This ruling will allow that to happen, and that is good for all concerned.”
The lawsuit was filed in Charleston Federal Court in December by several conservation organizations including SELC, CCL, Oceana, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, North Carolina Coastal Federation, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Surfrider, and One Hundred Miles. Sixteen South Carolina coastal municipalities filed a separate suit, and the two have since been merged.