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The federal government has lifted a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Under pressure from the oil industry and its allies along the Gulf Coast, the Obama administration says it will end the ban seven weeks early. The moratorium was put in place after BP's Deep Water Horizon drilling rig exploded this past April, killing eleven people and creating a massive oil spill.
As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, the White House insists new rules have been put in place to prevent a similar accident in the future.
JEFF BRADY: The decision to end the moratorium was up to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. And during a conference call today, he said those rules designed to provide safety and protect the environment made it possible to end the ban.
(soundbite of conference call)
Mr. KEN SALAZAR (U.S. Secretary of the Interior): We are building the gold standard for offshore oil and gas regulation with a goal of ensuring that our nation's energy is produced as safely and as environmentally responsible as possible.
BRADY: The new rules were announced last month. One sets new standards for equipment, saying it must be inspected and certified by an independent engineer. That includes standards for blowout preventers like the one that failed on BP's well.
A second rule requires companies to develop comprehensive workplace safety plans. The goal is to reduce human errors that are the cause of many accidents and spills. Salazar says the new requirements also place more responsibility on an oil company's leader.
(soundbite of conference call)
Mr. SALAZAR: Before an operator can begin drilling in deep water, it's CEO must certify that the rig has complied with all new and existing rules.
BRADY: The oil industry responded to the news today just as you might expect. Rayola Dougher is a senior economic advisor with the American Petroleum Institute.
Ms. RAYOLA DOUGHER (Senior Economic Advisor, American Petroleum Institute): We're chomping at the bit. We're ready to do what it takes. You know, file the papers, do - have the inspections. We're ready.
BRADY: There are still concerns within the oil industry that it may take months for any new drilling to actually take place. That's because the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency created in recent months to regulate drillers, is still hiring more inspectors. Oil industry advisor Dougher says it's disappointing to hear that the government predicts it could take another month or more to issue new drilling permits.
Ms. DOUGHER: Because the last thing we want is a de facto moratorium, where you have a back log of processing and approval of permits. So we are concerned about that, that that be able to move forward as fast as possible.
BRADY: Environmental groups were quick to criticize the decision to lift the moratorium. Sarah Chasis, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the new rules the Obama administration has put in place are a big improvement, but she says more work needs to be done.
Ms. SARAH CHASIS (Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceans): 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 before the end of October.
BRADY: The administration says that its overhaul of offshore drilling regulations is not completed 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 president's own party. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu had placed a hold on President Obama's nomination of Jack Lew to head the White House Budget Office. Today, Senator Landrieu said she would not lift that hold until she sees evidence that drilling has actually resumed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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