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Seismic testing for Atlantic oil and gas?

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The Obama administration has unveiled an environmental analysis that could pave the way for seismic testing for oil and gas in the Atlantic.

The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, in releasing the review Thursday, specified in a statement that it does not authorize any geological and geophysical testing activities, "but rather it establishes a framework for additional mandatory environmental reviews for site-specific actions and identifies broadly-applicable measures governing any future" such activities.

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Interior says oil and gas industry contractors have already submitted nine applications to do seismic surveys covering hundreds of thousands of miles, the Wall Street Journal reports.

While President Obama had said in early 2010 that he planned to open up the Outer Continental Shelf off Virginia and several Atlantic states to leasing by the energy sector, he postponed consideration of those plans after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that same year.

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The Bureau's analysis addresses seismic air gun testing, used to locate oil and gas deposits below the ocean floor, a process which is opposed by environmentalists.

"Seismic airguns create one of the loudest man made sounds in the ocean, and we should be doing everything we can to protect marine life from their loud blasts," Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for U.S. Oceans at environmental group Oceana said in a statement Thursday following BOEM's release of the environmental review.

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Oceana says the devices are loud enough to kill small animals like fish eggs and larvae at close ranges and can disrupt the behavior of large animals like whales and dolphins from up to 100 miles away.

Referring to BOEM's review, Savitz said "the Obama administration's decision could be a death sentence for many marine mammals, and needlessly turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone."

The Bureau's review outlines several protective measures the government could require for seismic surveys to help protect marine life when surveys are under way, including closing access to the migratory routes of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau said in a statement that the Interior and the Bureau were committed to "balancing the need for understanding offshore energy resources with the protection of the human and marine environment using the best available science as the basis of this environmental review."

Jeff Vorberger, Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs at the National Ocean Industries Association, the trade group representing the offshore sector, in a statement Thursday said the completion of the environmental review was "an important step in the determination of whether to open up new areas of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf to oil and natural gas exploration."

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