NORFOLK, Va. (AP) -- The U.S. Interior Department said Wednesday it is seeking comment from the public on a plan to allow energy companies to begin seismic testing to find oil and natural reserves in the Atlantic Ocean.
Officials have released a programmatic environmental impact statement on seismic testing for public review. The testing would be used to determine how much oil and natural gas is available and where the best places to drill would be, among other things. The studies also help identify archaeological and geologic hazards to avoid.
Companies would use the information to determine where to apply for energy leases, although no leases are currently available in the region that could be opened up for exploration until at least 2017.
Supporters of drilling argued that there needs to be a plan in place soon to sell drilling leases to make the seismic testing valuable. Environmental groups said seismic testing could harm wildlife, even before any drilling begins.
"Without an Atlantic coast lease sale in their five-year plan, the administration's wishful thinking on seismic research has no ultimate purpose," the American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito said in a statement.
The announcement comes as Americans grumble about escalating gas prices and the Obama administration seeks to fend off criticism from Republicans that not enough is being done to tap domestic energy resources.
"As the president has said, there is no silver bullet to high gas prices. But we must continue to reduce our reliance on foreign oil and reduce our vulnerability to the ups and downs of the international market," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a news conference in Virginia, a key election state.
Virginia was originally slated to be the first state on the East Coast to offer oil and gas drilling, but that plan was shelved by the Obama administration last year following the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
The current exploration area about 50 miles off Virginia's coast encompasses 2.9 million acres. The government estimates the area can produce 130 million barrels of oil and 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Seismic studies haven't been conducted in those waters in decades and industry estimates forecast much higher gas and oil reserves than previously thought, based on new exploration technology.
"This is an opportunity to move forward from a bad decision," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said in a statement.
Salazar said he would make his ruling on whether to allow seismic testing by the end of the year, following a series of public meetings from Delaware to Florida, where the testing would occur. Salazar said six companies have already filed applications expressing interest in conducting seismic testing.
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Tommy Beaudreau said it was important for the seismic testing to occur before any leases could be issued so officials can make smart decisions about where drilling should and should not occur. Besides addressing scientific and environmental concerns, he said the Interior Department has also been working with the Defense Department to make sure areas important to the Navy for training aren't obstructed. That's an issue of particular concern to Virginia, which is home to the world's largest Navy base.
The possibility of oil exploration in the Atlantic drew immediate criticism from environmental groups, who are concerned about its effects on marine life, including endangered whales.
"Today's announcement is great for petroleum companies, but horrible news for our coastlines and a potentially deadly blow to ocean fisheries and wildlife," Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke said in a statement.
U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management: www.boem.gov/oil-and-gas-energy-program/GOMR/GandG.aspx
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis