Energy News | Obama team lifts Gulf Coast oil drilling moratorium

The moratorium on deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has been lifted because new safety standards will make a disastrous oil spill much less likely, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced today.

Drillers must meet “the higher bar we have set” in order to get new permits, Salazar said, including written certifications by oil company executives that they have met all the safety rules. Companies must also have specific plans for dealing with any spill.

It will take awhile for companies to resume actual drilling, though Salazar said “it will happen soon.” Michael Bromwich, director of the agency that oversees offshore drilling, said it would take “at least a couple of weeks” for specific permits to be approved.

President Obama put the moratorium in place while inspectors reviewed the safety of other Gulf Coast rigs in the wake of the massive BP oil spill.

The six-month moratorium was supposed to end on Nov. 30.

Gulf Coast businesses and lawmakers protested the moratorium as unnecessary and harmful to their economy. A federal report said the moratorium probably caused the temporary loss of 8,000 to 12,000 jobs in the Gulf region.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., responded by putting a Senate hold on the nomination of a new Obama budget director, Jack Lew.

Salazar said many observers will be displeased by the decision; some will find the new regulations “too onerous,” while others will say the moratorium is being lifted too soon because deep water drilling remains too risk.

But the U.S. still needs oil and gas from the Gulf Coast, Salazar said, even as the nation transitions to a clean energy economy.

“The truth is there will always be risks associated with deep water drilling,” Salazar said. “But we can and we will make the drilling … safer than it has ever been.”

David Guest, attorney for an environmental organization called Earthjustice, said deep water drilling “is intrinsically dangerous, as demonstrated by the BP spill, and it’s surprising the federal government thinks it has so quickly resolved all the problems that contributed to the spill.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Cal., ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, called the lifting of the moratorium “good news for the thousands of workers that had been displaced by an Administration policy that compounded the economic damaged caused by the oil spill.”

Moving forward,” Issa added, “the Administration should do everything it can to expedite and streamline the regulatory process to ensure the highest possible standard of safety while avoiding a de-facto moratorium-by-regulatory-delay and bureaucratic bottle neck that would be just as damaging to the Gulf economy as a blanket moratorium.”