Oil exploration OK'd for U.S. East Coast

After a decades-long moratorium, the federal government says it will allow underwater oil exploration along part of the U.S. East Coast to begin before the end of the decade. That decision is likely to open the area to eventual offshore drilling.

On Friday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior, announced it will go ahead with permit applications for survey activities off the coast from Delaware Bay in the north to just south of Cape Canaveral in Florida, and from the inner edge of U.S. coastal waters to 403 miles offshore.

"After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites," BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement.

Cruickshank added the BOEM's decision was a "carefully analyzed and balanced approach" that would allow the exploration of offshore energy resources, while also protecting people, marine wildlife and coastal environments.

A report prepared last December for the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Ocean Industries Association, both energy industry groups, declared that opening the Atlantic coast's outer continental shelf to energy exploration and federal lease sales would be a boon to the U.S. economy, bringing in an estimated $195 billion in operational spending and investment alone between 2017, a year before the leases would begin, and 2035. Oil production would start as early as 2026.

The BOEM decision would also allow the surveys to use so-called sonic cannons, also known as seismic airguns. These devices use sound to penetrate the ocean floor and detect oil and gas deposits.

"It's like a sonogram of the earth," Andy Radford, an API petroleum engineer told The Associated Press. "You can't see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the earth that might hold oil and gas."

But environmental activists and some U.S. lawmakers are criticizing any use of sonic cannons.

"For more than 30 years, the Atlantic coast has been off limits to offshore drilling. Today, our government appears to be folding to the pressure of Big Oil and its big money," Claire Douglas, campaign director with the advocacy group Oceana, said in a statement on Friday.

Earlier this month, Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) offered his support for a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection decision to "seek legal recourse" to stop scheduled seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic because of concerns such tests would harm fish and marine mammals while putting more pressure on endangered species such as the North Atlantic right whale.

"The New Jersey coastal economy is still rebounding from the effects of Superstorm Sandy," Pallone said in a statement. "This seismic blasting puts our coastline at further risk and we cannot allow it move forward."

But in Friday's statement, the BOEM said any ocean surveys would also include mitigation measures meant to protect wildlife and the environment.