By Laura Barron-Lopez - 07/18/14 01:47 PM EDT
The Obama administration opened up the Atlantic to oil and gas exploration for the first time in nearly four decades on Friday.
The announcement from Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) allows the use of air guns and sonic sensors to search off of the East Coast.
It is a major step toward allowing future drilling in the Atlantic, which has remained off-limits for over 30 years.
While the decision doesn't guarantee that lease sales for drilling in Atlantic waters will be included in the Interior Department's five-year plan for 2017-2022, it is a step in that direction.
Geophysical research companies contracted by the oil and gas industry will still need to apply for individual permits before conducting tests and undergo strict environmental reviews.
Still, the decision is a win for industry, which will get a chance to prove the potential in the Atlantic for oil, gas, and renewable energy.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, expressed frustration with the administration for allowing testing, which they argue is harmful to marine life in the Atlantic.
"For more than 30 years, the Atlantic coast has been off limits to offshore drilling. Today, our government appears to be folding to the pressure of Big Oil and its big money," said OCEANA spokeswoman Claire Douglass.
Green groups say the tests could kill thousands of marine mammals, injuring dolphins and endangered whales.
The Natural Resources Defense Council called seismic testing the "gateway drug to offshore drilling."
While the decision favors the industry, oil and gas companies aren't getting everything they want.
The American Petroleum Institute said Interior is keeping in place "arbitrary" restrictions that "lack scientific support," and that will "discourage" exploration.
BOEM doesn't expect surveys to begin until early next year but will consider permit applications as they come in.
After a permit is issued, the contractor will have one year from that date to conduct tests.
The decision comes after the release of an environmental impact study in February that detailed precautions companies should take when conducting tests.