The Obama administration took a step toward allowing oil and gas drilling off seven Atlantic Coast states for the first time in decades, establishing guidelines for seismic testing that would gauge offshore reserves.
The decision on Friday doesn’t authorize the tests, done by ships towing guns that blast high intensity sound waves into the water. The Interior Department will consider applications for testing in light of safety standards to mitigate risks to ocean life, the head of the agency’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said.
Environmental groups criticized the action, saying tests would pose serious risks to species including sea turtles and the right whale and could lead to drilling in a region that has been off-limits to oil exploration since the early 1980s. In the Carolinas opinions were mixed on the decision.
“Not only is seismic exploration a gateway drug to offshore drilling, it is a major assault on our ocean itself, with far-reaching impacts on marine mammals and fish,” Michael Jasny, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, said in a statement.
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South Carolina state Sen. Paul Campbell says energy will mean jobs and revenue for the state and says it can be tapped safely.
Nancy Cave, northcoast office director for the Coastal Conservation League, called the decision to allow seismic testing despite environmental studies reporting potential harm to sea creatures disappointing.
“We certainly have grave concerns about that and question whether we would really want to have oil and gas exploration of the South Carolina coast,” Cave said. “Do we really want to have rigs off our coast with the possibility of an oil spill?”
Cave said the Coastal Conservation League had signed on to a letter sent during the commenting period to voice concerns about allowing the exploration.
“How unfortunate would it be if they do the testing and harm creatures and the results are, ‘Well, we can’t even do it off the S.C. coast,’ ” she said.
Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the department chose the toughest standards recommended by an environmental analysis released in February to limit the harm to wildlife in the region from Delaware to Florida.
“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,” he said.
Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President Brad Dean said Friday information currently available is outdated, and said the testing could lead to job creation.
“America needs to become energy-independent and a sensible approach to offshore energy development will create jobs and enhance our economy without threatening tourism,” he said. “The only information we currently have to evaluate energy deposits off our coast is outdated and was derived from archaic methods. The modernized testing authorized by the president, which is long overdue, will enable us to evaluate the economic potential of drilling off the South Carolina coast.”
The Interior Department will review several applications submitted to conduct testing, a process that will take months, Cruickshank said.
The mitigation measures include visual monitoring from ships doing the tests and restrictions on when tests are conducted during the migration of whales and the nesting of sea turtles.
The environmental analysis found that testing could impact 34 marine mammals, including six deemed endangered species by the government. Incorporating mitigation measures though would make oil exploration feasible, the report found.
“The administration should be working to protect whales and the bottom lines of our struggling fishing industry, not helping the highly profitable oil industry reap further profits to the detriment of our oceans, fishermen and the coastal communities that depend on them,” Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who opposes expanding offshore drilling, said in a statement.
The American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group that includes Exxon Mobil in Irving, Texas, said drilling in the Atlantic could create 280,000 jobs and contribute $23.5 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
The economic benefit depends on the size of the resource. The bureau estimated this year as much as 4.72 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil lie under the region off the Atlantic coast, which includes the northern part that remains under a drilling ban.
Estimates may not be reliable because there hasn’t been any recent seismic testing.
In the process, ships tow guns that shoot compressed air underwater. Reflected sound waves give companies a view of the resources that may lie beneath the seafloor.
The sound waves are 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine, according to Oceana, an environmental advocacy group. Claire Douglass, campaign director at Oceana, said the sonic blasts can kill fish eggs and larvae and disrupt the behavior of whales and dolphins as far as 100 miles away.
“With today’s decision President Obama is bowing to pressure from Big Oil rather than listening to the thousands of voices calling on him to protect our natural resources and coastal economies,” Douglass said.
Oil and gas explorers typically hire seismic-mapping firms to survey offshore regions that haven’t been extensively drilled. The data lets geologists and physicists assess whether subsea rock formations are likely to possess accumulations of crude oil or gas worth drilling.
For large surveys in regions like the Gulf of Mexico or Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, seismic companies often perform multi- client surveys that are funded by groups of international oil companies that then each get access to the completed map.
The Interior Department’s environmental analysis said seismic testing could injure thousands of dolphins and whales. It added though that such a result was unlikely, in part because of mitigation measures and because the mammals can swim away from the disturbance.
For years the Atlantic area was protected by congressional and presidential drilling moratoriums. While those were lifted in 2008 as rising gasoline prices led to complaints from drivers, Obama hasn’t since taking office in 2009 opened the area to bids from producers interested in searching the region.
The Interior Department is currently writing a leasing plan for 2017 to 2022.
Staff writer Amanda Kelley contributed to this story.