ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, Fla. -

President Barack Obama has approved the use of sonic cannons to explore for oil and gas off the Eastern Shore.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Friday formally approved guidelines for using air cannons in the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to Delaware.

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Energy companies could buy new oil and gas leases and begin drilling in 2018 if they find profitable reserves.

The guidelines are meant to protect endangered whales and other creatures from the loud noises and increased vessel traffic, but the government's environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., quickly voiced his opposition to the decision.

"Obviously you cannot have oil drilling where we are dropping the first stages of our military and civilian rockets launched at the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station," Nelson said.

Nelson is a long-time opponent of oil drilling off the coast of Florida, citing the state's dependence on pollution-free waters for its tourism-driven economy and military training areas.

"Drilling off Florida's Atlantic coast is unwise and impractical," Nelson said. "It could interfere with the military operations off of Florida's northeast coast, not to mention the environmental hazard that drilling would pose."

The decision opens an area of the Eastern Seaboard larger than two Californias to exploration for the first time in decades.