WASHINGTON — With the federal government now open to the idea of drilling for oil and natural gas off the East Coast, North Carolina residents will get their first chance Thursday to offer opinions about the possibility of seismic testing along their coastline.

A public hearing scheduled in Wilmington is one of eight meetings in coastal cities that the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is holding on the rules that would govern the search for energy reserves.

The rest are in Jacksonville, Fla.; Savannah; Charleston; Norfolk, Va.; Annapolis, Md.; Wilmington, Del.; and Atlantic City, N.J.

They’ll take place in the middle of an election year as President Barack Obama tries to fend off criticism from Republicans who say he isn’t doing enough to address escalating gas prices. And they come after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s announcement last month that energy companies will be allowed to determine how much oil and natural gas are available on the outer continental shelf from Florida to Delaware.

That’s often done in part through seismic testing, which helps companies figure out where resources are and helps them avoid archaeological and geologic hazards. Environment groups, concerned about marine life, have criticized the plans, calling seismic testing “the gateway drug to drilling.”

The seismic guns used for testing equipment would have an enormous effect on humpback whales and other endangered species that have been shown to abandon their habitat over hundreds of thousands of miles, said Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

“Imagine dynamite exploding every 10 to 12 seconds in your neighborhood for weeks or months on end,” he said. “Now imagine that you’re blindfolded and you use your hearing to find food, to make your way around, to basically survive.”

Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the government is concerned about the potential effect on marine life, including whales and sea turtles. It’s hosting the public hearings and gathering more data on those possible impacts, he said, in order to learn how to minimize any negative effects.

Beaudreau said the bureau is preparing three scenarios. The first two include different levels of protection and mitigation requirements. The third alternative is to do nothing and not allow any energy searches off the coast.

“If the effects are so extreme that you can’t mitigate against them, then we have a no-action alternative available,” he said. “The whole reason we’re doing this is because we are concerned and we do want to do the right thing.”

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The debate over drilling is nothing new in North Carolina, but the possibility of oil and natural gas exploration off the coast is one of the most significant steps toward energy companies hauling out the drills.

Little is known about what might be buried off the coast of North Carolina.

The Obama administration has banned offshore drilling on the Eastern seaboard until at least 2018, but Salazar said he plans to make a decision on whether to allow seismic testing by the end of 2012.

If it’s approved, energy companies could begin their work next year.