Offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Alabama. (Photo: vphill)
The Obama administration on Tuesday lifted the temporary ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico set in place after the Deepwater Horizon blowout in April. The moratorium was originally set to expire November 30.
The temporary ban affected drilling operations on 36 deepwater offshore rigs in the Gulf, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Salazar said in a press conference that the rigs must undergo additional inspections before resuming operation, and rig operators must prove they can meet safety standards set by new rules introduced in late September.
The Gulf oil industry has called for an end to the drilling moratorium for months, arguing that the ban put people out of work and did further damage to the Gulf economy.
Environmentalists have called on the Obama administration to extend the moratorium on deepwater drilling and broaden it to include shallow water drilling.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) blocked the confirmation of Jack Lew, Obama's nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, until the moratorium was lifted, according to The New York Times.
Salazar said he made the decision to lift the ban after reviewing a report from Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Salazar said that the well that leaked for months following the BP blowout has been dead since September 19, and the appropriate disaster response resources are now available to the rest of the Gulf.
"We are now past that immediate crisis," Salazar said.
Bromwich said rig operators must prove their rigs comply with new rules issued last month governing blowout preventors, well casing, worker safety and emergency response. Operators will also have to prove sufficient access to containment resources in case of a spill or leak.
Salazar called the rules set a "new gold standard," and he expects those in favor of deregulation to complain that the rules go too far.
"Others will say we are lifting too soon ... The truth is, there will always be risk in deep water drilling," said Salazar, who used the conference to promote a new wind-power facility in Colorado as evidence of the Obama administration's investment in clean energy.
Bromwich said it is unclear how soon idled rigs will be back in business, but "it's not going to happen tomorrow." He said that his department is in the process of recruiting more inspectors to enforce the new rules, but hasn't made any considerable additions to its staff.