North Carolina and South Carolina have signed off on federal permits to begin offshore seismic surveys for oil and gas, erasing any hope among anti-drilling groups that the state's governors would use the Coastal Zone Management Act to slow the momentum toward granting East Coast energy leases.

South Carolina environmental regulators last week agreed to an initial permit from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) that would allow the geophysical firm Spectrum GEO to start surveying. Earlier, BOEM permits for Spectrum and Ion's Geo GX Technology group were agreed to by North Carolina state officials.

Both states sought additional environmental conditions for the project, beyond those that BOEM is likely to require for marine mammals and endangered species, including the migratory northern right whale. North Carolina wants seismic testing to halt during peak recreational fishing seasons, and South Carolina wants a suspension during the peak spring/summer beach-nesting season for sea turtles.

Spectrum had sought a permit for surveys closer to shore than the 50-mile buffer that has been proposed by BOEM. South Carolina is now calling for testing to be limited to waters at depths about 40 miles offshore. The state’s move reflects concerns raised by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and other critics.

Politically the federal plan for offshore leasing has split the Carolinas to an extent between tourism-dependent coastal communities and larger pro-business development forces. But governors Pat McCrory of North Carolina and Nikki  Haley of South Carolina have come down squarely on the side of offshore energy development.

South Carolina’s demand for conditions on the permit shows coastal communities and conservation groups are having some effect on the debate, said Amy Armstrong, executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

“From our perspective, it does a little bit to protect the turtle season. It does do some things,” Armstrong said. But ultimately, “there isn’t enough (oil and gas potential) out there to make it worth the risk,” she added.

South Carolina’s support for offshore exploration may not be deep, Armstrong said. “The governor’s not aggressively pushing it,” Armstrong said. On the other hand, with cities and towns including Charleston, Columbia, Beaufort and Georgetown, “you’ve got all these municipalities coming out aggressively against it, so that’s got to have some pressure.

“There’s a good chance this seismic permit is going to be challenged. I don’t think it’s a done deal at all,” Armstrong said.

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.