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Offshore oil exploration plan draws fire

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The Obama administration's latest move to permit testing for oil and gas off Maryland and other Atlantic coast states is drawing flak from both environmentalists and the oil industry.

Speaking at a lightly attended public hearing Wednesday afternoon in Annapolis, some residents said they feared the testing might hurt whales and dolphins, disrupt fishing and damage tourism. They also warned that the risks of a spill were too great to warrant even looking for oil.

"Avoiding activities that will harm or kill any more marine mammals is significantly more important to me than succumbing to today's frenzied pressures to reduce gasoline prices by a mere 3 cents [er gallon], which can take 20 years or more to achieve," said Carla Porter, 47, of Sunderland in Calvert County.

An analyst with the American Petroleum Institute, meanwhile, said the Interior Department's proposal to allow seismic testing from the Delaware Bay to Florida didn't go far enough, since the administration has no plans to offer any leases for exploratory drilling in the next five years.

Interior officials announced last month that they wanted to open much of the coast to surveys that could lead to drilling for oil and gas.

James F. Bennett, chief of environmental assessment for the department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the agency has eight applications pending to conduct seismic testing there.

Federal geologists estimate there are 1.9 billion barrels of oil and 21.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas technically recoverable off the Mid- and South Atlantic coast, but officials say they're relying on information gathered three decades ago and new, more sophisticated survey techniques are available to assess how much could be under the ocean floor.

The Annapolis hearing was the fifth of eight being held to get public input on a preliminary environmental impact assessment, which predicted seismic testing would have "negligible" to minor effects on fish and sea birds but could have "moderate" impacts on whales, dolphins and sea turtles.

Research shows that marine mammals can suffer injury and even death from the sound waves generated by air guns and other devices used in underwater seismic testing. The government's environmental assessment projected that anywhere from 4,000 to 28,000 dolphins of various species could be killed annually during the testing, as well as up to a dozen endangered humpback whales. Thousands more could be injured, or have their own ability to communicate disrupted by the pulses, which can travel hundreds of miles underwater.

The report does suggest alternatives to minimize harm to some marine mammals — specifically banning testing from November into April to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, and barring testing off Florida's coast during sea turtle nesting season early in the year.

Bennett, the bureau's chief of environmental assessment, said no decision will be made on whether to pursue testing until all public comments have been received and analyzed, which should be sometime in November.

Only five people spoke at the afternoon session, though an evening session also was scheduled. An Interior official said a hearing Tuesday in Norfolk drew 60 speakers.

"I think it'll hurt fish and tourism," said Doug Aus, 36, of Towson. "We've got more oil rigs, platforms and wells offshore and on land in operation than in the rest of the world combined," he asserted, adding, "We need to be investing in renewable energy."

State officials were among the nine people in the audience who registered. One spoke to make clear Gov. Martin O'Malley's continued opposition to drilling off the Maryland coast at this time.

But Holly Hopkins, senior policy associate with the American Petroleum Institute, suggested opponents may have little to worry about. Even if the testing is permitted, she said, the companies that had applied to do it are unlikely to go forward until the Obama administration actually proposes to issue leases for exploratory drilling. Those testing companies would not spend the money to do the surveys if they could not promptly sell their data to the oil industry.

"This gesture falls short in initiating forward-thinking, comprehensive energy policy," Hopkins said.

She also called the administration's decision not to open the Northern Atlantic coast to testing and leasing "short-sighted." That region holds an additional 1.4 billion barrels of oil and nearly 10 trillion cubic feet of gas, by current estimates.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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