E & E News, May 27, 2010
President Obama's stringent new approach to offshore drilling will halt all new deepwater drilling for six months and shut down 33 rigs now drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but it will allow shallow-water activities to continue, administration officials said today.
Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the six-month moratorium today along with cancellations of lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and offshore Virginia, enhanced safety regulations and training for personnel, stronger certification processes for blowout preventers, and postponement of drilling permits in Alaskan waters.
"We're pausing deepwater drilling and examining the system to ensure this disaster doesn't happen again," Salazar said during a conference call with reporters. "We need to take a cautious approach to offshore oil and gas development as we strengthen safety."
The deepwater drilling moratorium, which will be in place at least until an independent commission completes its report about the causes of and lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon incident, will apply to all new permits issued in deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico -- those deeper than 500 feet. It will also apply to the 33 drilling rigs that are currently operating in the Gulf.
"Those rigs are in different stages of drilling and preparation for drilling," Salazar said. "For those that have already spudded and are drilling, we need to get them to a safe horizon in the geology to be able to secure the well."
Once they reach that point, Salazar added, the rigs will be shut down and the wells secured.
But drilling activity in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico can continue, Salazar said, albeit with stronger safety restrictions and additional inspections in place.
Among the new safety restrictions Salazar is recommending in a report to Obama are requirements for all blowout preventers to be certified, stronger well control, tougher inspections, and expanded safety and training programs for rig workers.
Salazar was quick to note the moratorium won't affect current production in the Gulf of Mexico. He said there are currently 591 producing wells in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and 4,515 producing wells in the shallow water.
"Those will continue to produce oil and gas for the needs of the nation," he said.
But some environmental groups are saying the moratorium in deep water is not enough.
"While we're applauding the president's stance to cancel lease sales and to impose a moratorium on new drilling permits until the commission has had time to issue its report, we think he left out something important: having the moratorium cover shallow water drilling, as well," said Regan Nelson, senior oceans advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is a broken system, and it's broken whether you're talking about deepwater drilling or shallow-water drilling."
And Greenpeace said the six-month moratorium is not long enough, calling it an "encouraging first step."
"The president's six-month suspensions of new drilling are a welcome reprieve for the communities and animals that rely on those pristine waters, but we need a permanent ban on all new offshore drilling, not just in the Arctic but in all U.S. waters," said Greenpeace oceans campaign director John Hocevar in a statement. "A ban on all new oil drilling is the only way to avoid another spill disaster."
But the industry is challenging the move, saying it could be detrimental to economic and energy security.
"An extended moratorium on safely producing our oil and natural gas resources from the Gulf of Mexico would create a moratorium on economic growth and job creation -- especially in the Gulf states whose people and economies have already been most affected by the oil spill -- undercutting our nation's access to affordable, reliable, domestic sources of oil and natural gas," said American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard in a statement.
The National Ocean Industries Association said cancelling lease sales without full knowledge of the BP disaster could be a premature decision.
"The need to act in the face of the ongoing crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is understandable, but we should ensure our actions today don't lead to greater problems for the nation down the road," the group said in a statement.
ENVIRO GROUP SUES TO HALT DRILLING
Separately, the Center for Biological Diversity is asking a federal court to halt 49 offshore drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico that were approved without full environmental review.
The suit, which names Salazar and the Minerals Management Service and was filed today in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, challenges exploration and drilling plans approved within the past 60 days that were exempted from full environmental analyses required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Many of the plans are for deepwater or ultra-deepwater operations, the environmental group says. And 19 of the plans got their exemptions after the BP incident on April 20.
BP received a similar exemption before the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig last month triggered the massive spill and killed 11 rig workers.
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