Interior allows some suspended drilling to resume

In this Dec. 16 photo, workers dig up sand impacted by the BP PLC oil spill on a beach on East Grand Terre Island on the coast of Louisiana. Crews have been scouring the Gulf Coast's sandy shores for oil digging, scraping, tilling and sifting beach after beach in their hunt. There is still an untold amount of oil in the form of gooey, largely non-toxic tar, lying under sand, mud and oyster shells along the shores, leaving the prospect that tar balls may wash up from time to time for months, if not years.

In this Dec. 16 photo, workers dig up sand impacted by the BP PLC oil spill on a beach on East Grand Terre Island on the coast of Louisiana. Crews have been scouring the Gulf Coast's sandy shores for oil digging, scraping, tilling and sifting beach after beach in their hunt. There is still an untold amount of oil in the form of gooey, largely non-toxic tar, lying under sand, mud and oyster shells along the shores, leaving the prospect that tar balls may wash up from time to time for months, if not years. Photo by The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thirteen companies whose deepwater drilling activities were suspended last year may be able to resume drilling without detailed environmental reviews, the Obama administration said Monday.

The companies — they include Chevron USA Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. — will be allowed to resume work at previously drilled wells, as long as they meet new policies and regulations, officials said.

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In this Dec. 16 photo, workers dig up sand impacted by the BP PLC oil spill on a beach on East Grand Terre Island on the coast of Louisiana. Crews have been scouring the Gulf Coast's sandy shores for oil digging, scraping, tilling and sifting beach after beach in their hunt. There is still an untold amount of oil in the form of gooey, largely non-toxic tar, lying under sand, mud and oyster shells along the shores, leaving the prospect that tar balls may wash up from time to time for months, if not years.

“For those companies that were in the midst of operations at the time of the deepwater suspensions (last spring), today’s notification is a significant step toward resuming their permitted activity,” said Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

The decision is a victory for the drilling companies, which in the past had routinely won broad waivers from rules requiring detailed environmental studies. After the disastrous BP spill in April, the Obama administration pledged it would require companies to complete environmental reviews before being allowed to drill for oil.

The administration has been under heavy pressure from the oil industry, Gulf state leaders and congressional Republicans to speed up drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which has come to a near halt since a moratorium on deepwater drilling was imposed in the wake of the BP spill. The ban was lifted in October, but drilling has not yet resumed in waters deeper than 500 feet.

The delay is hurting big oil companies such as Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which have billions of dollars in investments tied up in Gulf projects that are on hold. Smaller operators such as ATP Oil & Gas Corp., Murphy Exploration & Production Co.-USA, and Noble Energy Inc., also have been affected.

A federal report said the moratorium probably caused a temporary loss of 8,000 to 12,000 jobs in the Gulf region.

Bromwich and other officials stressed that the policy announced Monday was not a reversal of its previous plans not to waive detailed environmental reviews. It said that new rules have strengthened safety and reduced the risk of another catastrophic blowout such as the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 workers and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

“This decision was based on our ongoing review of environmental analyses in the Gulf and was in no way impacted by a singular company,” said Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Bromwich.

Bromwich said in a statement that the new policy will accommodate companies whose operations were interrupted by the five-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, while ensuring that the companies can resume previously approved activities.

The firms will not be required to complete a detailed review under the National Environmental Policy Act, but they must comply with new policies and regulations set up in the wake of the BP spill, Bromwich said.

The 13 companies won’t be required to revise their exploration plans if an updated estimate of the most oil that would be released in an uncontrolled spill is less than the amount included in spill-response plans on file with the bureau. If the worst-case discharge estimate is higher, “further reviews will be conducted,” according to the statement.

The 13 companies that received the notice are: ATP Oil & Gas Corp.; BHP Billiton Petroleum (GOM) Inc.; Chevron USA Inc.; Cobalt International Energy; ENI U.S. Operating Co. Inc.; Hess Corp.; Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Corp.; Marathon Oil Co.; Murphy Exploration & Production Co.-USA; Noble Energy Inc.; Shell Offshore Inc.; Statoil USA E & P Inc.; and Walter Oil & Gas Corp.

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