The Trump administration took a big step Monday toward permitting seismic testing for the presence of oil and natural gas in the offshore Atlantic, issuing the rules for how the tests take place.
The tests would provide data sold to drilling companies to locate where to drill test wells.
The move had been expected after President Donald Trump in April ordered a review of the Obama administration's closings and lease denials of potential new offshore drilling sites.
Five companies have filed permit requests, and all of them want to explore at least part of the waters off South Carolina.
The fight over drilling for many cuts to the heart of coastal life, where interests are divided between exploring for potential the economic benefit of fossil fuels to restricting exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy.
Opposition to the drilling and testing has grown to millions of East Coast residents, more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 41,000 businesses and a half million fishing families.
Michael Jasny, a project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council compared the effect of the seismic blast tests to repeatedly setting off dynamite in a neighborhood.
Other critics pointed to previous industrial accidents.
“Why would the government even think about allowing the filthy, accident-prone oil industry to proceed with this dangerous procedure that so greatly affects the same wildlife we’re all trying to protect through restrictive fishing regulations?” asked Rick Baumann, the owner of Murrells Inlet Seafood.
Industry advocates said seeking current data is a responsible first step.
Dustin Van Liew, the government affairs director for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said the administration has recognized the need for new information "for making informed energy policy decisions about America’s resources on behalf of the American people."
Seismic-exploration companies survey for fossil fuels in the ocean bottom by detonating sound blasts from airguns that can deafen, injure and scatter marine animals, according to studies by the federal government and other groups. The findings are then sold to oil companies.
For the tests, the powerfully loud guns are fired underwater every 16 seconds to read “echoes” from the bottom geology. The tests take place over miles of ocean for months at a time.
Industry representatives say advances in drilling technology have made the operations safer, and that seismic surveys have taken place for a half-century with no direct evidence that they harm sea animals, commercial fishing or tourism. Advocates tout the economic benefit and potential job creation of the work.
Among other studies, a 2014 University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences study during a National Science Foundation seismic mapping effort in the Atlantic Ocean off Beaufort Inlet found 78 percent of the fish on a nearby reef "went missing."
The rules set by the National Marine Fisheries Service include nearly 300 pages of restrictions and requirements, such as keeping watch for marine mammals, seasonal and critical zone closings. Conservationists say the restrictions aren't nearly comprehensive enough to assure the safety of the animals or prevent disruption to the fisheries.
The companies want to search through a vast area of ocean as large as the Southeast states combined. It stretches well past the Continental Shelf about 40 miles out. Testing as recent as the 1990s suggests there is little extractable oil or natural gas to be found — with one exception: methane hydrates, a frozen form of natural gas.
The gas is known to be found in deep ocean beds, 100 miles out and more than 1,500 feet deep, under pressure like gas in a propane tank.The companies' focus is the Shelf, where the hope lies more reserves of gas and potentially oil might be found. The shelf and ridges somewhat closer in are the heart of the offshore fishing grounds.
According to the rules, testing could take place in all federal waters, starting three miles offshore, and at least one company has applied to test within 30 miles of the coast. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has asked federal regulators to keep companies that are permitted at least 50 miles out.
"If you're going to survey from three miles out you're going to affect nearly everybody who fishes in the ocean," Baumann said.
The rules go to public comment for 30 days. Contact NOAA Fisheries. Permits could be issued as soon as the fall, Jasny said.