The Interior Department opened the door Thursday to the first searches in decades for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast, recommending that undersea seismic surveys proceed albeit with a host of safeguards to shield marine life from much of their impact.
The recommendation is likely to be adopted after a period of public comment and over objections by environmental activists who say it will be ruinous for the climate and sea life alike.
The American Petroleum Institute called the recommendation a critical step toward bolstering the nation's energy security, predicting that oil and gas production in the region could create 280,000 new jobs and generate $195 billion in private investment.
Activists were livid. Allowing exploration "could be a death sentence for many marine mammals and is needlessly turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone," Jacqueline Savitz, a vice president at the conservation group Oceana, said in a statement Thursday.
Oceana and other groups have campaigned for months against the Atlantic survey plans, citing Interior Department calculations that the intense noise of seismic exploration could kill and injure thousands of dolphins and whales.
But while the assessment released Thursday repeats those estimates, it also largely dismisses them, stating that they employ multiple worst-case scenarios and ignore measures by humans and the mammals themselves to avoid harm.
A formal decision to proceed with surveys would reopen a swath off the East Coast stretching from Delaware to Cape Canaveral that has been closed to petroleum exploration since the early 1980s.
Actual drilling of test wells could not begin until a White House ban on production in the Atlantic expires in 2017, and even then, only after the government agrees to lease ocean tracts to oil companies.