White House Lifts Ban On Offshore Drilling

The sun sets over an oil platform

The sun sets over an oil platform waiting to be towed out into the Gulf of Mexico at Port Fourchon in Louisiana. Getty Images hide caption

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The federal government on Tuesday lifted a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico seven weeks early, after coming under pressure from the oil industry and its allies in the Gulf Coast.

The drilling moratorium was put in place after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded last April, killing 11 people and prompting a massive oil spill.

The White House said new rules should prevent a similar accident in the future.

"We are building the gold standard for offshore oil and gas regulation," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The new rules were announced on Sept. 30. One rule sets new standards for equipment, saying they must be inspected and certified by an independent engineer; that includes blowout preventers like the one that failed on BP's Macondo well.

A second rule requires companies to develop comprehensive workplace safety plans; the goal is to reduce human errors that are at the cause of many accidents and spills.

Salazar said the new requirements also place more responsibility on an oil company's leader.

"Before an operator can begin drilling in deep water, its CEO must certify that the rig has complied with all new and existing rules," he said.

The oil industry welcomed Tuesday's news.

"We're chompin' at the bit," said Rayola Dougher, senior economic adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's lobbying group. "We're ready to do what it takes — file the papers, have the inspections."

But there are still concerns within the oil industry that it will take months for any new drilling to actually take place. That's because the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which was created recently to regulate drillers, is still hiring more inspectors.

"The last thing we want is a de facto moratorium where you have a backlog of processing and approval of permits," Dougher said.

Environmental groups were quick to criticize the decision to lift the moratorium. The Natural Resources Defense Council is among the groups that wanted the White House to wait to lift the ban.

The new rules are a big improvement, said Sarah Chasis, senior attorney for NRDC and director of the group's Ocean Initiative.

But she added: "The better course would be to maintain the moratorium until the Coast Guard and Interior investigations are complete; the President's Oil Spill Commission has issued its report, and there's also a National Academy of Engineering report, which we understand is due at the end of October."

The administration said its overhaul of offshore drilling regulations is not complete and that those forthcoming reports could lead to more changes. But it was clear the White House faced plenty of pressure to lift the ban, even from within the Democratic Party.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) had placed a hold on President Obama's nomination of Jack Lew to head the White House budget office, as a protest to the moratorium. Landrieu said in a statement Tuesday she would not lift that hold until she sees evidence that drilling has actually resumed in the Gulf of Mexico.

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