CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- Conservation groups Tuesday urged the federal government not to permit the use of air guns if energy companies are allowed to search for oil and natural gas off the nation's East Coast.
The guns fire compressed air into the water and researchers use the echoes to map oil and natural gas deposits beneath the ocean floor. Opponents say the devices can also lead to loss of hearing in marine mammals and affect other sea creatures.
"We're joining together to urge President Obama and the Department of the Interior to reject seismic air gun testing for oil and gas here off South Carolina's coast and along the Atlantic coast," said Katie Parrish of the conservation group Oceana that works to protect the world's oceans.
She appeared at a news conference on a busy street corner along with representatives of the South Carolina Aquarium and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. About 20 people turned out, some holding signs opposing air guns.
Reporters were told the group planned to demonstrate how loud the air guns are by firing one off. But Parrish said Charleston officials denied permission because the gun would violate the city noise ordinance. So instead the group blew whistles and chanted "Stop Seismic Air Guns!"
Parrish described the guns as "like having a jet plane fly over your head every 10 seconds for days or weeks at a time."
The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Management held a series of public hearings last year from New Jersey to Florida - including one in North Charleston - on opening areas off the coast for oil and natural gas exploration. It includes areas from the 3-mile state territorial limits to 350 miles off the coast.
The department is expected to announce later this year whether the air guns may be used.
Shelley Dearhart, the education programs instructor for the aquarium, said while studies of the effect of air guns on marine mammals are inconclusive "the aquarium is always concerned when there is a change in the ocean environment especially when it is unknown how various species will be affected in both the short and the long term."
But Andy Radford, a senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, an energy industry group, later told the AP that air guns have been used for decades in searching for oil and gas. And there's never been a documented case of a sea creature killed by them.
He said the industry works to mitigate the effects of the guns.
"These include a ramp up procedure where gradually increase the sound level so animals in the area can move away and they are not affected," he said.
Economists estimate an offshore oil and gas industry could mean 5,000 jobs and $500 million in royalties for South Carolina.
But Chris Carnevale of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy warned that must be balanced against the impact oil spills could have on fishing and tourism.
Tourism pumps $15 billion yearly into the economy.