By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration said on Wednesday it was moving toward allowing private companies to begin assessing the oil and gas potential off the country's Atlantic coast, but full exploration is likely still years away.
The Interior Department released a draft environmental analysis on Wednesday that found minor to moderate impact if it allowed companies to begin seismic testing off the country's east coast.
"As we move forward with the safe exploration and production of our domestic energy supply, this environmental analysis will help provide the critical information we need to make smart decisions in the Mid- and South Atlantic," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The release of the analysis comes as the Obama administration faces growing criticism over gasoline prices that have soared to around $4 a gallon.
Republicans have blasted the administration for leaving Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters out of its proposed offshore oil and gas leasing plan that runs through 2017.
The Interior Department canceled a scheduled 2011 lease sale off the coast of Virginia after the BP oil spill in 2010.
"This president is focused on trying to talk his way out of what he's done, rather than taking real steps to boost American energy production," said Republican Congressman Doc Hastings, who heads the House natural resources committee, in response to the department's announcement.
The Interior Department plans to accept public comment on its environmental analysis and begin issuing permits for companies to conduct seismic activity as early as next year, depending on its final assessment.
Separately, the Interior Department approved Royal Dutch Shell's oil spill response plan for Alaska's Beaufort Sea on Wednesday.
Shell is working to begin drilling off Alaska's coast this summer after repeated regulatory delays for the company's Arctic exploration program.
Shell will still need well-specific permits before it starts drilling. Interior approved Shell's response plan for Alaska's Chukchi Sea earlier this year.
Environmentalists cried foul over the approval of Shell's plan.
"Unfortunately, today's approval ... is another sign the Administration is going after a 'quick political fix' that places the public trust behind Big Oil's bottom line," said Susan Murray of Oceana, a ocean conservation group.
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)