PUEBLO, Colo., Oct. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the ban on deep-water oil and natural gas drilling Tuesday for companies that adhere to stricter regulations.
Salazar had invoked a moratorium on deep-water drilling July 12 to allow time to make sure adequate safeguards were in place to preclude a repeat of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster that spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
While the drilling ban was to extend until Nov. 30, Salazar said the report and recommendations made this month by Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, led him to decide "it is now appropriate to lift the suspension on deep-water drilling for those operators that are able to clear the higher bar we have set."
Speaking in Pueblo, Colo., where he was attending a ceremony marking the opening of what he called the largest wind tower manufacturing plant in the world, Salazar said those risk reduction measures include new safety rules worst-case discharge planning requirements, testing protocol and third-party verifications.
"Among them, however, is a requirement that I believe is a very important one, and that is that before an operator can begin drilling in deep water, its (chief executive officer) must certify that the rig has complied with all new and existing rules," Salazar said.
He added the capping of BP's Macondo well means emergency response resources are now once again available should there be another disaster and the nation's ability to respond to deep-water blowouts is now improved.
"Now, I know that some people will not be completely satisfied with today's decision," Salazar said. "Some will say that the new rules for offshore drilling are too onerous or that the bar we have set is too high.
"Others will say that we're lifting the deep-water drilling suspension too soon."
But, he said, "we are building the gold standard for offshore oil and gas regulation, with the goal of ensuring that our nation's energy is produced as safely and environmentally responsible as possible."
Bromwich, speaking from Washington, said while more work needs to be done, "the risks of deep-water drilling have been reduced sufficiently to allow drilling to resume."
He said inspections of drilling rigs will be done with current staffing levels for now, with some reassignment of inspectors from other areas possible until additional funding is secured to hire more.
Salazar said 36 drilling rigs affected by the moratorium were inspected after the Deepwater Horizon accident and will be inspected again.
How long it will take for the rigs to meet the new standards and resume drilling isn't known, Bromwich said.
"How far into the future that will go, I don't think anyone can say," he said.
"My sense is that we will have permits approved before the end of the year. But how much before the end of the year, I can't say, and how many permits, I can't say."
Salazar said the companies have known the new regulations were coming and there are some that "will easily come into compliance and that will move forward through the permitting process and we will soon have deep-water drilling resuming in the Outer Continental Shelf in the gulf."
"There are others that may take longer for them to come into compliance with the regulations," he said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said lifting the drilling ban "is a start, but doesn't translate into real relief for Gulf Coast businesses and residents who rely on the energy industry for their livelihood."
"Companies who are in compliance with new rules are likely to face lengthy delays for permits," Cornyn said in a statement. "As long as this permitting moratorium continues to exist, there is an increasing strain on Gulf Coast businesses and independent operators that are struggling to keep their doors open."