Obama Admin May Open up Atlantic to Seismic Testing

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A report expected to be released on February 27 or 28 could allow the early stages of oil exploration to move forward on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, which has long been off limits for oil and gas drilling. The Department of Interior will publish its final environmental analysis, which will clear a major hurdle on the way toward allowing the seismic testing off the East Coast in decades. The report is expected to be greeted with strong pushback from environmentalists.

At issue is whether or not Interior's environmental analysis adequately takes into account the effect of seismic testing on whales, dolphins, and other marine animals. Seismic testing involves blasting sound waves to the seabed, which give engineers detailed 3-D maps that can inform where the best places to drill might be. However, the acoustic disturbance can harm marine life, and the National Marine Fisheries Service is developing guidelines on seismic testing. Environmental groups argue that Interior is moving forward before those guidelines are published.

And opposition is not just coming from environmentalists. Nine Senators sent a joint letter to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell on February 26, arguing that seismic testing should not be allowed until the best available science is known, including the incorporation of NMFS data.

While the environmental analysis will not green light seismic testing outright, it will be a key determinant in how the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management evaluates the 13 pending permits hoping to begin work. The Department of Interior develops five-year plans on which blocks of ocean it will auction off to oil companies. There are no Atlantic blocks in the current five-year plan, but Interior's next moves may have implications for what they include in the 2017-2022 plan.

The Atlantic seaboard is expected to hold substantial oil reserves, but until detailed seismic surveys are conducted, the specifics are unknown. Environmental groups hope that by preventing seismic testing, they can stop oil drilling in the Atlantic before it gets started.

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