(Adds details from proposal, background, comments from agency)
By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday laid out a framework for assessing the amount of crude off the Atlantic coast, another step toward possibly allowing oil production in an area that has been out of reach for decades.
The plan was released as part of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s final environmental review of the possible impacts of seismic testing to gauge oil reserves in the Atlantic Ocean.
If approved, the proposal would require measures aimed at avoiding vessel strikes of marine animals, the closure of certain areas to protect the migration path of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, and the use of underwater microphones to improve detection of marine mammals during seismic airgun surveys.
BOEM director Tommy Beaudreau said the data gleaned from seismic surveys could help the department as it crafts new leasing plans, although he noted the agency could move ahead with scheduling a lease sale in the Atlantic before the assessments are completed.
Under the plan, companies seeking to conduct seismic testing in the Atlantic would still have to undergo environmental reviews for their specific projects.
The department’s draft environmental review of seismic testing in the Atlantic was released in 2012.
Drilling was banned off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in the 1980s and remained off limits for more than two decades. The moratorium was lifted in 2008 as lawmakers dealt with fallout from record high gasoline prices.
The Obama administration was on the verge of allowing a lease sale off the coast of Virginia when the BP oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 led to the auction’s abrupt cancellation.
Republicans have blasted the president for not including the Atlantic in the government’s current five-year leasing plan, and have launched numerous failed efforts in the House of Representatives to enact laws that would force approval of additional drilling.
Oil producers welcomed the administration’s proposal, but stressed that the agency would need to signal that it plans to include the Atlantic in its next leasing plan for companies to actually invest in the seismic testing, which can cost tens of millions of dollars.
“The market will be there if the potential for leasing is there,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute.
Nine companies currently have pending applications with the bureau to do assessments in the Atlantic.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, said she hoped the administration would allow further action in the Atlantic to move ahead swiftly.
“It is a shame that it has taken this long to begin the work needed to survey our nation’s energy resources off the Atlantic coast,” Murkowski said. “I hope this review will mean boats in the water this year, followed very soon by lease sales.” (Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Ros Krasny, Franklin Paul and Chris Reese)