The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it is ending the temporary, six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling operations. The announcement means that new drilling could take place in the Gulf “very soon,” said Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, though rigs will need to undergo new inspection and permitting procedures before companies can start drilling.
The moratorium was supposed to remain in place until Nov. 30, but as of today it is off. “The policy position we are articulating today is that we are open for business,” said Salazar in a call with reporters. The agency will be taking applications for new permits and processing them according to new regulations and guidance issued in the six months since the Deepwater Horizon spill. Salazar said he expects to see deepwater drilling resume “very soon—I can’t tell you how soon, but soon.”
Both Salazar and Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service), said that they believed enough work had been done in the months since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon to prevent another disaster. “The risks of deepwater drilling have been reduced sufficiently to allow deepwater drilling to resume,” said Bromwich in a call with reporters.
The two pointed to reforms at the agency that they believe have improved oversight and to new requirements that have been put in place for companies that want to drill. But as many are pointing out, it seems a bit premature given the fact that the agency still lacks adequate resources for inspections—Bromwich said they are hiring and relocating inspectors and “will do the best we can with the resources at our disposal”—and that the exact cause of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig has yet to be determined.
Environmental groups were, as you might expect, nonplussed.
“To ensure a disaster like this never happens again, we must know what caused it in the first place,” said Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re still waiting for that answer and until we get it, the moratorium should remain in place.”
Greenpeace USA executive director Phil Radford accused the administration of timing the announcement to the November election. “This is pure politics of the most cynical kind. It is all about the election season, not safety and environmental concerns,” said Radford. “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.”
But drilling fans were also not satisfied. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) issued a statement arguing that a “de facto moratorium” is still in place because of “regulatory uncertainty and a slow-down of the issuance of required drilling permits” (since Salazar has said other new rules are on the way). And Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) indicated that she will continue to block the nomination of Jack Lew to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget because of her concerns about the future of offshore drilling. Landrieu said she would have to “look closely” at how the new drilling permits are issued before she would release the hold, and noted that she wants the administration to “accelerate the granting of permits in shallow and deep water.”