Federal regulators promise to keep a close watch over potential disruptions to whales, dolphins and other marine species if deafening air-gun blasts are allowed offshore to test for natural gas or oil.

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A closer look at what the Bureau of Energy Management decision on offshore seismic testing means. In Local

But the concessions to protect the animals, made in a Bureau of Energy Management final environmental report, don't satisfy conservationists who wanted tougher restrictions and are alarmed over the potential consequences of exploration off shore from Delaware to Florida.

The issue strikes at the heart of Lowcountry life on the ocean. Nine companies have applied for permits to explore for oil and natural gas along all or part of the Southeast coast, if the region is opened to leasing in 2017. Exploration can cost $4 million or more. All the companies want to use seismic blasts and all want to look off South Carolina, even though geology and earlier testing suggest there is little exploitable oil or natural gas to be found.

Debate in the Lowcountry has been loud over whether the ocean is more valuable as a tourism or industry resource, or whether the two can coexist.

BOEM in August put off a final decision whether to open leasing, with no deadline given for when the decision might be made. On Thursday, Director Tommy Beaudreau suggested the information learned from the exploration would be valuable to future management of the deep off the Continental Shelf.

Conservationists, who had called for BOEM to delay the environmental findings until the latest round came in on the federal research into the effects of noise on marine mammals, weren't mollified.

"By failing to consider relevant science, the Obama administration's decision could be a death sentence for many marine mammals, and needlessly turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone," said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for U.S. Oceans at Oceana.

Industry advocates offered a measured approval of the decision. A National Ocean Industries Association spokesman said the association would need more time to study the decision.

The decision "appears to move us closer to using this same scientifically guided process in the Atlantic, and eventually realizing its remarkable potential for job creation, U.S. energy security, domestic investment and deficit reduction," said Jeff Vorberger, vice president for policy and government affairs.

In seismic tests, crews detonate compressed air guns dragged behind ships, creating a series of blasts to read the "echo" beneath the sea floor. The blasts can deafen or injure marine mammals, such as whales or dolphins, that navigate by sonar echoes, and are suspected of injuring other marine life.

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