WASHINGTON — The federal government on Friday took one of the first steps to allow new seismic research in the Atlantic Ocean that could help identify hidden pockets of oil and gas — even though drilling in the area will be off limits for at least seven years.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement contracted with Continental Shelf Associates, based in Stuart, to develop plans for an environmental assessment of the potential effects of geological and geophysical research by oil and gas companies in the mid and south Atlantic.
The decision keeps the United States on a path toward eventually leasing federal Atlantic waters for oil and gas development, but it won't be happening any time soon. Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said there would be no sales of oil and gas leases along the Atlantic under a new five-year plan that will govern those decisions from 2012 through July 2017.
The move reversed a March 31 announcement by President Obama — just weeks before the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Oil industry officials downplayed the administration's move Friday and said the seven-year wait before any offshore drilling in federal Atlantic waters would suppress interest in launching the seismic research, which generally helps companies decide whether drilling is a good bet.
"If the administration had proceeded with this study in a timely manner, before it reversed course and banned drilling in the Atlantic, the study would already be complete," said Andy Radford, an upstream policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.
The government held 13 public meetings earlier this year to help guide the development of the new environmental impact statement.
Once the study is complete — in late 2012, according to the ocean energy bureau — it will guide decisionmaking about seismic research in the region and decisions about where to allow oil and gas leases. It also could help dictate where companies will be allowed to place wind turbines and other equipment that generates renewable energy.