The Obama administration approved guidelines on Friday for seismic searches for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean, handing the petroleum industry a significant victory in a bitter dispute with environmental groups over the searches’ impact on marine life.
The decision opens the way for companies to seek permits to look for oil in a stretch of the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida, using compressed-air guns that blast the ocean bottom with thousands of sound pulses as loud as a howitzer. The pulses bounce off geologic formations deep in the earth, giving geologists hints of where oil and gas deposits may lie.
The new rules do not permit actual drilling for oil, and the only previous exploration in the area produced 51 dry holes before ending in the 1980s. But experts have said that a decision to allow exploration sends a clear signal that allowing offshore drilling rigs would be approved as well.
A congressional ban on offshore Atlantic production expires in 2017. The oil industry is pressing for exploration to begin as soon as next year.
The Interior Department, which issued the new guidelines, has said that as much as 4.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil could lie beneath the seabed, but the lack of actual exploration data puts that estimate in doubt.
Environmental groups say the seismic pulses will destroy some marine creatures and disrupt feeding, migration and other crucial habits of whales and dolphins, some of them already endangered species. The oil exploration industry argues that years of seismic exploration elsewhere have produced little if any evidence that the technique causes serious harm.
Given three proposed sets of guidelines, Interior Department analysts chose the one with the strictest environmental safeguards. That alternative would probably eliminate any deaths of sea life and sharply reduce the chance of injuries but would in some cases cause changes in behaviours like mating, migrating and searching for food. (NY Times)