The Interior Department is endorsing seismic exploration for oil and gas in Atlantic waters, a critical move toward starting oil drilling off the Carolinas, Virginia and potentially down to Florida.
The department released its final review on Thursday, favoring a plan to allow the intense underwater seismic airgun blasts that environmentalists and some members of Congress say are a threat to whales, dolphins, sea turtles and fish.
There’s dispute over just how much oil and gas lies along the Atlantic seabed. Federal estimates of a modest 3.3 billion barrels of oil are from the 1970’s and 1980’s.
“The currently available seismic information from this area is decades old and was developed using technologies that are obsolete,” said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Beaudreau said the plan closes some areas to protect the main migratory route for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and nesting habitat for sea turtles.
“We’re really going to require and demand a high level of environmental performance,” Beaudreau said.
The underwater seismic tests could be allowed in an area from Delaware to Florida’s Cape Canaveral, although most of the push for offshore drilling is in the waters off North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to give a formal OK to the plan in April. At that point the government would start reviewing permit applications from companies that want to conduct the seismic testing and decide if their specific proposals should go forward.
The process involves vessels towing an array of seismic air guns that blast compressed air underwater, sending intense sound waves to the bottom of the ocean. The booms are repeated every 10 seconds or so for days or weeks, with their echoes used to map the location of the subsea oil and gas deposits.
Environmental groups warn the blasts cause hearing loss that prevents animals from feeding, mating and communicating.
“By failing to consider relevant science, the Obama administration’s decision could be a death sentence for many marine mammals, and needlessly turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone,” said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for U.S. Oceans at the environmental group Oceana
Some 50 members of Congress, including a few Republicans, have sent letters to the president opposing the seismic tests and saying up to 138,500 marine mammals could be injured by them.
The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia support drilling off the coasts of their states.
The federal government plans to use the information gathered from the seismic tests to decide whether to include mid and south Atlantic drilling in the next federal offshore leasing plan, which runs from 2017 through 2022.