Environmental groups opposed to offshore drilling sued the federal government on Tuesday to prevent future seismic tests for oil and gas deposits in Atlantic waters off the U.S. East Coast.
Seismic testing, which uses air gun blasts, violates federal laws that protect marine mammals, endangered species, and national environmental policy, according the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, South Carolina, against U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The U.S. fisheries service in November gave initial permission to five companies to conduct seismic airgun tests beneath a vast region off the East Coast. The permits allow marine wildlife to be harassed but not killed.
Conservationists say the testing, a precursor to oil drilling, can cause disorientation that leads to beachings of an endangered species, the North Atlantic right whale.
U.S. President Donald Trump is pursuing increased petroleum drilling as part of an "energy dominance" policy. A proposal to open nearly all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, announced in January, is pending.
"The Trump administration has steamrolled over objections of scientists, governors and thousands of coastal communities and businesses to enable this dangerous activity," Michael Jasny, a director and ocean noise pollution expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
A federal marine biologist said last month that no seismic tests have been known to cause whale beachings. A spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department, declined to discuss ongoing litigation.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also included the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
Lawmakers from South Carolina and coastal mayors held a news conference on Tuesday in Charleston to address the issue.
U.S. Representative-elect Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, said drilling threatens fishing industries, jobs, recreation and a tourism industry worth $21 billion.
"I'm here not just to say 'no to offshore drilling' but 'hell no to offshore drilling,'" added Cunningham, who said he would introduce legislation next year to reinstate a ban on U.S. offshore drilling that had been renewed by President Barack Obama.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster opposes drilling off the coast of his state. State Attorney General Alan Wilson will send a letter of opposition to Commerce Secretary Ross soon, a spokesman said by phone. More than a dozen states are seeking exemptions from offshore drilling leases.
"Oil spills don't respect state boundaries," Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center said.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Bill Berkrot)