The Obama administration took a step closer Friday to allowing oil and gas exploration off the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic coasts, drawing praise from the energy industry and criticism from environmentalists.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved a framework for doing seismic testing from the Delaware Bay to mid-Florida and up to 400 miles offshore. The decision sets the stage for federal officials to begin issuing permits for surveying an area roughly the size of California.
Federal officials said testing is needed to update 40-year-old data on the region's offshore oil and gas reserves. But they stressed they would require "the highest practicable level" of protections for marine life during the testing.
"The bureau's decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments," acting bureau director Walter D. Cruickshank said in a statement.
Among the safeguards for marine life, the agency said it would bar testing along the main migratory route for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 are believed to remain. Federal rules also would require survey vessels to hold off on seismic testing if marine mammals are in the vicinity. The vessels would have to use spotters and underwater microphones to detect marine life.
An official from an offshore energy industry group welcomed the decision while calling on the federal agency to issue "swift, science-based" permits to conduct seismic testing.
"For decades in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world, seismic surveys have been a tried-and-true method for making informed, environmentally sound decisions with regard to oil and gas activities," said Jeff Vorberger, a vice president at the National Ocean Industries Association. He noted that other nations are forging ahead with Atlantic offshore exploration.
Federal geologists figure there are 1.9 billion barrels of oil and 21.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas technically recoverable off the Mid- and South Atlantic coast. But those estimates are based on less sophisticated surveys done three decades ago.
But environmental groups decried the decision, warning that despite precautions ordered by the government, "dynamite-like" seismic testing could injure fish, whales and other marine mammals.
"The use of seismic airguns is first step to expanding dirty and dangerous offshore drilling to the Atlantic Ocean, bringing us one step closer to another disaster like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill," said Claire Douglass of Oceana. She noted that the federal agency has estimated that the testing could hurt and possibly kill up to 138,000 marine mammals, while disrupting the feeding, mating and migratory behavior of many more.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat who chairs the Senate's Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, also objected to the proposal.
"The Mid-Atlantic is just too environmentally sensitive for drilling," he said in a statement. "I urge the Administration to reconsider its plans to allow this testing which will only serve to harm Maryland's coastal communities and the natural resources which drive our economy."
The administration's move to allow seismic testing had been opposed by some municipalities, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and by more than 100 biologists, who earlier this year called on the bureau to postpone its decision until new guidelines could be finished for protecting marine mammals and fish from the acoustic impacts of the tests' underwater vibrations.
Drilling had been banned in the 1980s off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but Congress lifted the moratorium in 2008 amid concern about rising gasoline prices. The Obama administration was preparing to hold a lease sale off the Virginia coast in 2010 but canceled it when the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.