Did Obama Just Signal That He'll Open the Atlantic Coast to Drilling?

The Interior Department said Friday that it will allow companies to use seismic air guns and other methods to gauge oil-and-gas resources underlying Atlantic Coast waters.

The department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management finalized a plan that lays out a series of environmental restrictions—aimed at protecting marine life, such as whales, dolphins, and sea turtles—for companies seeking to look for oil in mid- and South Atlantic waters. A number of companies have applied for permits for testing that would update old estimates of oil and gas underlying the waters that have long been off-limits to drilling.

The plan is a blow to environmentalists who say that the underwater blasts will wreak havoc. "Impacts to marine mammals could include everything from temporary or permanent hearing loss, to disruption of vital behaviors like communicating, feeding, mating, calving, and migrating, [as well as] masking of biologically important sounds," said Claire Douglass of the group Oceana.

Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management defended the seismic-testing decision, and a senior official said testing may begin as soon as early next year. Friday's decision doesn't approve any permits but rather sets out a framework for how Interior will govern the process.

"The [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] 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," said Walter D. Cruickshank, acting head of the agency.

Opponents of oil-and-gas development fear that the plan is a step toward allowing companies to start drilling off the Atlantic Coast.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said he's preparing a letter to the White House with some other Florida lawmakers that calls the seismic testing plan "the first major step toward opening the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling." The letter also calls the testing dangerous to marine mammals and fisheries. Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts had a similar reaction.

But while the framework announced Friday paves the way for new testing, Cruickshank insisted that it does not telegraph a future decision to open up the Atlantic Coast to drilling. Interior is in the early stages of crafting its 2017-22 offshore lease sale plan.

In 2010 President Obama announced plans to lease drilling blocs off the mid- and South Atlantic coast in the 2012-17 offshore program, but backed off after the BP oil spill. The oil industry is lobbying for access to the region in the 2017-22 plan that's under development.

Oil-industry groups welcome the chance to conduct seismic testing but said they fear the process will be too restrictive. "We remain concerned this process will be hindered by unnecessary hurdles lacking scientific justification," said Jeff Vorberger, a senior official with the National Ocean Industries Association.