The Obama administration announced Tuesday it is lifting its moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. Companies that want to start drilling must certify that they meet new requirements, including demonstrating they have adequate blowout containment resources to prevent disasters like the massive BP oil spill earlier this year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
But environmental advocates said the risks inherent in deepwater drilling remain unacceptably high. At the same time, oil industry groups complained that the regulations are too strict.
The actual drilling will not begin for a while, as the approval process is likely to take weeks or months, experts say.
Michael Bromwitch, director of the newly created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, said that before deepwater drilling resumes, his agency intends to conduct inspections of each drilling operation for compliance with regulations. The BOEM was created by the Obama administration to replace the scandal-ridden Minerals Management Service.
"We have more work to do in our reform agenda," Interior Secretary Salazar said in a statement, "but at this point we believe the strengthened safety measures we have implemented, along with improved spill response and blowout containment capabilities, have reduced risks to a point where operators who play by the rules and clear the higher bar can be allowed to resume."
But Dan Favre of the Gulf Restoration Network said lifting the moratorium "puts the region at risk."
While the new safety rules and procedures are "welcomed," he wrote on the group's blog, "they are not enough to ensure that the industry will actually follow the rules."
Pointing to the "abysmal response, containment, and clean up we have observed and continue to observe in the aftermath of the BP disaster," Favre said local communities have to be given a meaningful watchdog role, to "police the cozy relationship between the industry and regulators to ensure rules are followed and contingency plans are in place."
American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard told Platts Energy Week on Sunday that his organization was "working closely" with regulators on the new rules. Gerard said the API was working to ensure that the rules do not lead to "the bar (being) raised so high." If they are too restrictive, Gerard threatened, oil producing companies could move their operations elsewhere. Meanwhile, Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, complained to the New York Times that the new regulations were "onerous."
But even if the rules are strict and complied with, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, offshore oil drilling is "an inherently dangerous business" and the risks are "unacceptable."
"It's a relief to see the administration announce new, long overdue safety regulations prior to lifting the drilling ban," Brune said in a statement. "But these regulations still don't bring the risk to an acceptable level. The only way to make sure we don't see another drilling disaster is to end our dependence on oil. Rather than putting coastal communities in the Gulf, the Atlantic, and Alaska at risk for more oil spills, we should be expanding wind, solar, and efficiency measures and creating a 21st century transportation system."
Investment in such initiatives, he said, will create "clean energy jobs in oil-producing regions like the Gulf Coast."
Brune praised Obama for recent "significant steps to break our oil addiction," such as raising fuel economy standards. "Unfortunately," Brune said, "the oil industry and Republican leaders continue to stand in the way of measures that would help end our oil dependence. They blocked clean energy legislation in the Senate and now they are fighting against clean energy jobs."
"Big Oil's influence on Congress and our energy policy is out of control," the Sierra Club leader said.
Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, called the lifting of the moratorium "a display of the oil industry's power over the White House."
The temporary drilling ban was declared in the aftermath of the April 20 BP explosion that poured close to 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The suspension was scheduled to end this Nov. 30. The move to end it now, before the scheduled date, was seen by many as an effort to help Democratic incumbents in areas like Louisiana where the oil industry has exploited anger over the economy and job losses to boost its campaign against the drilling ban.
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, applied pressure to lift the moratorium by blocking the appointment of Jack Lew to a key economic post, head of the Office of Management and Budget. Echoing the oil industry's line, she said Tuesday she would not release her hold on the nomination unless the government "accelerates" the granting of offshore drilling permits.
Photo: A demonstration in New Orleans, May 30. http://www.flickr.com/photos/infrogmation/4658845796/ cc 2.0