Share story

The Obama administration approved guidelines Friday for seismic searches for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean, handing the petroleum industry a significant victory in a 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 many times louder than a jet engine every 10 seconds for weeks at a time. The pulses bounce off geologic formations deep in the Earth, giving geologists hints of where oil and gas deposits may lie.

The guns create noise pollution in waters shared by whales, dolphins and turtles, some of them endangered.

Sonic guns are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and in other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending down pulses of sound that reverberate beneath the sea floor and rebound to the surface. Hydrophones capture the results, which computers translate into high-resolution, three-dimensional images.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“It’s like a sonogram of the Earth,” said Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil-and-gas trade association in Washington, D.C. “You can’t see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the Earth that might hold oil and gas.”

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 a decision to allow exploration sends a clear signal that allowing offshore drilling rigs also would be approved.

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 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 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 behaviors such as mating, migrating and searching for food.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.