The Obama administration on Friday green lighted the use of sonic sensors and air guns by the oil and gas industry to explore for resources in U.S. Atlantic waters.

Geophysical research companies would have to apply for individual permits to conduct seismic studies along the southern and mid-Atlantic coast. They also would be subject to environmental scrutiny of their plans, according the Interior Department.

Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in February issued a final review of geological and geophysical (G&G) mitigation measures to protect marine life before surveys are performed (see Daily GPIFeb. 27).

The move paves the way for possible drilling off of the East Coast within a few years under BOEM's potential five-year plan for selling offshore energy leases. Interior in June took initial steps to develop the lease sale schedule from 2017-2022 that would evaluate all Outer Continental Shelf planning areas (see Daily GPIJune 13).

BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank said the agency relied on public comments, scientific research and other evidence to develop the safeguards. The measures offer "a very strong suite of mitigation measures...aimed at trying to mitigate the impact on wildlife."

The approval to begin surveys doesn't authorize any specific G&G activities. Individual companies would need permits from BOEM as well as the National Fisheries Service. The decision also does not suggest that there would be drilling in the region, Cruickshank said.

According to BOEM, nine companies have said they want to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast, which could represent the first G&G data collected in more than 30 years.

Operators didn't get everything they wanted in the seismic survey plan. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Ocean Industries Association, among others, had urged Interior to limit proposed timeouts, relief for companies that had to shut down activities when dolphins and other sea life are nearby.

Interior also limited access to the migratory routes of endangered North Atlantic right whales, and it has prohibited multiple surveys from being conducted simultaneously.

"Operators already take great care to protect wildlife, and the best science and decades of experience prove that there is no danger to marine mammal populations," said API Upstream Director Erik Milito on Friday. "Restrictions that have no scientific basis can easily discourage exploration, private investment and job creation. Regulators should rely only on sound science when setting permit requirements."

While producers may use the studies to explore for possible oil and gas resources, the G&G research under the Interior decision also will help to identify sand and gravel that may be harvested for restoring coasts. And, increasingly, the data provides data for the planning of offshore renewable energy installations, including where to install wind turbines.

The OCS leasing plan ends in 2017 (see Daily GPI, June 29, 2012; Dec. 18, 2012). That plan proposed 15 lease sales in six offshore areas, including four in the Gulf of Mexico (see Daily GPI, Dec. 2, 2010). The program also included three potential lease sales in Alaska's Cook Inlet, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. No sales were scheduled for the Atlantic or Pacific coasts.

In related news, BOEM on Thursday released final details for the planned Aug. 20 lease sale to be conducted in the Western GOM, including a portion of acreage near the U.S. maritime border with Mexico. (see Daily GPIApril 15).

Close to 21.5 million acres will be offered for lease, including the 1.4 nautical mile buffer that is the maritime border, which had been excluded from development until a treaty was ratified.

"With expiration of this treaty provision, the United States has decided to lease the whole and partial blocks in the 1.4-nautical mile buffer area," BOEM said in the sale package. The lease sale would be the sixth auction in the 2012-2017 lease plan.