The Trump administration said Wednesday it is moving forward on seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean, the first step toward offshore drilling in a region where it has been blocked for decades.
The Interior Department said it is reviewing six applications by energy companies that were rejected by the Obama administration.
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Environmental groups and many East Coast lawmakers oppose the surveys, saying loud sounds from seismic air guns could hurt marine life.
The oil and gas industry has pushed for the surveys, which map potential drilling sites for oil and natural gas. No surveys have been conducted in the mid- and south-Atlantic regions for at least 30 years.
The regions, as defined by the Interior Department, stretch from northern Florida to Delaware. Any new drilling activity is expected to be limited to the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month aimed at expanding drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, part of his promise to unleash the nation's energy reserves in an effort to reduce imports of foreign oil.
Trump's order reversed an action by former President Barack Obama and faces fierce opposition from environmental activists and many Democrats, who say offshore drilling harms whales, sea turtles and other marine life and exacerbates global warming.
The Interior Department said in a statement that the surveys are needed to update information about the Outer Continental Shelf that was gathered more than 30 years ago, "when technology was not as advanced as today."
In addition to providing data on potential sites for offshore oil and natural gas production, seismic surveys are also used to locate sites for offshore wind structures, pinpoint potential seafloor hazards and locate sand and gravel resources for beach restoration, the department said.
Data from seismic surveys also assists officials in determining fair market value of offshore resources.
The surveys help "a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation's offshore areas ... and evaluate resources that belong to the American people," said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Industry groups hailed the announcement, while environmentalists warned of potential oil spills that could cripple coastal tourism.
Seismic surveys have been conducted in the U.S. and around the world for decades, and "there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from these surveys adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities," said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.
"Seismic testing is not only dangerous on its own, but it will lead to offshore drilling that could threaten our coasts even more," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. The Sierra Club has vowed to challenge any attempt to drill off the Atlantic coast in court.
Last year, Obama designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic as indefinitely off limits to oil and gas leasing. The December designation was in addition to a five-year drilling plan announced in November that also blocked Atlantic drilling.
Environmental groups hope the indefinite ban, which relies on an arcane provision in a 1953 law, will be difficult for Trump or other presidents to reverse. The Obama administration said at the time it was confident the president's order would withstand legal challenge. The 1953 law provides no authority for subsequent presidents to undo so-called permanent withdrawals of oil and gas leases from the Outer Continental Shelf.
Obama's order placed off limits 31 ocean canyons stretching from New England to Virginia.
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