coastal oil exploration
© Reuters / Enrique Marcarian AFP Photo / Frederic J. Brown
The Obama administration has announced it is reopening the US Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration, clearing the way for the use of sonic cannons to locate energy deposits - despite the threat to sea life.

The White House is attempting to sell its controversial energy plan on the back of desperately needed jobs in a stagnant economy, as well as reducing its energy dependency. However, those arguments have done little to persuade environmentalists and folks who depend upon fishing and tourism for their livelihoods.

Environmental groups attempted to extend a decades-old ban against drilling off the Atlantic Coast by pointing out the dangers that the use of sonic cannons, which emit powerful pulses of sound into the ocean every 10 seconds, presents to a multitude of sea creatures, including dolphins, turtles and whales. The argument, however, seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

© AFP Photo / David McNew
The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) approved opening the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida to exploration beginning in 2018, while adding that it is still dedicated to protecting marine life. In fact, the bureau's own estimates show that more than 138,000 types of marine life could be harmed by the exploration, including nine of the world's remaining 500 North Atlantic right whales.

"The bureau's decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments," acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the economic incentives of tapping into the massive energy reserves off the East Coast may be too tempting a proposition despite the environmental risks involved.

There is an estimated 4.72 billion barrels of oil and 37.51 trillion cu. feet (1.125 trillion cu. meters) of natural gas buried below the surface from Maine to Florida, according to BOEM. Energy lobbyists, who have been pushing to open up oil and gas exploration for decades, say the project could attract $195 billion in investment between 2017 and 2035, as well as generating thousands of jobs and pumping over $23 billion per year into the economy.

While many East Coast states have anti-drilling legislation on the books that forbid exploration off their shores, the government's plans for drilling will take place in federally-designated waters and beyond the jurisdiction of state law.

Although oil and gas companies will have to comply with some environmental regulations, like having whale-spotting observers onboard, and closing certain habitats during birthing and feeding seasons, environmentalists say those precautions fall drastically short of mitigating the threat that sonic cannons present to aquatic life.

"Once they can't hear - and that's the risk that comes with seismic testing - they are pretty much done for," Katie Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League based in Charleston, South Carolina, told AP.

"Even if there were oil out there, do we really want that? Do we really want to see these offshore rigs set up? Do we really want our tourism industry to suffer? Do we really want our environment to suffer?" she asked.