The petroleum industry won a significant victory in a dispute with environmental groups last week when the Obama administration approved guidelines for seismic searches for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean.
The decision opens the way for companies to seek permits to look for oil in a stretch of the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida, using compressed-air guns that blast the ocean bottom with thousands of sound pulses as loud as a howitzer, the New York Times reported.
The new rules do not permit actual drilling for oil, but experts have said a decision to allow exploration sends a clear signal that allowing offshore drilling rigs also would be approved.
A congressional ban on offshore Atlantic production expires in 2017. The oil industry is pressing for exploration to begin as soon as next year.
The Interior Department, which issued the new guidelines, has said that as much as 4.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil could lie beneath the seabed, but the lack of actual exploration data puts that estimate in doubt.
Environmental groups say the seismic pulses will destroy some marine creatures and disrupt feeding, migration and other crucial habits of whales and dolphins, some of them already endangered species.
The oil exploration industry argues that years of seismic exploration elsewhere have produced little if any evidence that the technique causes serious harm.