WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Tuesday lifted a moratorium it had imposed on deepwater offshore oil drilling in July during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, saying that new rules should make drilling safe enough to resume.
While drilling isn't expected to start again immediately, the timing of the announcement — six weeks ahead of schedule and three weeks before congressional and state elections — could give Democrats a boost at the polls. The moratorium has been blamed for thousands of lost jobs in an already damaged economy and posed a potential drag on some Gulf-area Democrats' election prospects.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, announcing the move in a teleconference, said he expects criticism from both camps: industry interests that say the new standards are too onerous and drilling opponents who say the moratorium is being lifted too soon.
To the latter group, Salazar said, "The truth is, there will always be risks associated with deepwater drilling. But we have now reached a point where we have significantly in my view reduced those risks."
Even as the nation seeks more clean energy alternatives, Salazar said, "We will still need oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico to power our cars, our homes and our industry. But we can and we will make the drilling of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico safer than it ever has been."
Some environmentalists quickly objected to lifting the moratorium.
Greenpeace USA Executive Director Phil Radford called the decision "pure politics of the most cynical kind."
"It is all about the election season, not safety and environmental concerns," Radford said. "The White House wants us to believe that they have solved all the dangers of offshore drilling and we can return to business as usual. It is a false promise, if not a big lie."
Dan Favre of the advocacy group Gulf Restoration Network said in a statement that the new rules are insufficient and that lifting the moratorium puts the region at risk for another spill.
Some oil industry leaders were equally unhappy.
"The massive amounts of new, unworkable regulations and layers of burdensome red tape laid out by the Interior Department, which will add no environmental benefits, will make certain that a de facto moratorium on offshore energy development remains intact," complained Bruce Vincent, the chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the president of the Houston-based Swift Energy Company, in a statement. He called for Congress and the White House to streamline the permitting process.
Randall Luthi, the president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said in a statement that, "Our companies remain doubtful that this announcement is anything more than symbolic until permits are actually issued for new drilling."
The new rules, issued two weeks ago, include requirements for worst-case planning requirements and third-party verification that blowout preventers and other equipment work properly. Oil rig operators also will be required to show that they have enough materials to contain oil in the case of a spill.
In addition, the chief executive of each company operating the rigs must sign a statement certifying that the company has complied with the new safety rules and other regulations.
The BP spill began on April 22 after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and it took until July 15 to cap the well, nearly a mile underwater. An estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf in the nation's worst manmade environmental disaster.
About a third of U.S.-produced oil comes from offshore drilling, and almost 80 percent of that comes from deepwater drilling, which has helped slow the production declines in aging onshore U.S. wells.
The Energy Information Administration, the research arm of the Energy Department, said in September that a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling in 2010 would cut production in 2011 by 82,000 barrels a day.
Some experts said the rhetoric about thousands of jobs lost has been inflated. David Dismukes, the associate director of the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University, said he thinks that the net job losses were fewer than 1,000, partly because those losses were offset by cleanup-related jobs.
Marilyn Heiman, the director of the Pew Environment Group's Offshore Energy Reform Project, said her group likes the "precautionary approach" that Salazar is taking, but wants him to continue stringent oversight. In addition, she said, "This doesn't let Congress off the hook to pass strong legislation to implement these and other reforms."
The House of Representatives already has passed such a bill, and the Senate should do it before the end of the year, Heiman said. Future administrations could undo regulations, but a law would be more difficult to change.
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