The Obama administration has sided with energy developers over environmentalists, approving the use of underwater blasts of sound to pinpoint oil and gas deposits in federal Atlantic Ocean waters.
The regulatory decision is the first real step toward what could be an economic transformation in East Coast states, potentially creating a new energy infrastructure, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue. But it dismayed people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism, and activists said it stains President Barack Obama's environmental legacy.
"Opening vast stretches off the East Coast to oil and gas has no place in an otherwise historic agenda to combat climate change," said Michael Jasny, a marine mammal expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The cannons will substantially increase the noise pollution in Gulf Stream waters shared by whales, dolphins and turtles, sending powerful sound waves reverberating through the deep every ten seconds, for weeks at a time.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acknowledged that thousands of sea creatures will be harmed, but ultimately decided to approve this exploration in the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida. Energy companies need the data as they prepare to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.
"The bureau's 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," acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement.
Sonic cannons 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.
"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 DC. "You can't see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the Earth that might hold oil and gas."
The surveys also can map marine habitats and identify solid undersea flooring for wind energy turbines. But fossil fuel mostly funds this research, and corporations keep the data secret, disclosing it only to the government.
"They paid for it, so I can see why they don't want to share. These things are not cheap," said John Jaeger, a University of Florida geology professor.
Oil lobbyists say drilling for the estimated 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that lies beneath federal waters from Florida to Maine could generate $195 billion in investment and spending between 2017 and 2035, contributing $23.5 billion per year to the economy.
These estimates describe the total amount of energy "technically recoverable" from the nation's outer continental shelf, but the Atlantic seabed from New Jersey through New England remains off limits for now. While some states have passed drilling bans, Virginia and the Carolinas asked for the surveys, bureau officials explained Friday.
"I honestly feel we can go offshore and harvest the energy that's out there," said South Carolina state Sen Paul Campbell. "I think we're kind of foolish not to."