Federal official says lifting of offshore drilling moratorium will depend on industry actions

By Harry R. Weber, AP
Friday, September 10, 2010

Feds: Drilling moratorium depends on industry

BILOXI, Miss. — A key U.S. government official said Friday the moratorium on deepwater oil drilling likely won’t be extended past Nov. 30, but whether it is cut short will be entirely up to the industry.

Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, told The Associated Press during a break in a public forum in coastal Mississippi that the industry must comply with current and soon-to-be-imposed safety regulations.

He said the government is mindful of the impact the moratorium has had on communities that rely on offshore drilling. But it must also be concerned about the impact from the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP PLC’s undersea well.

Bromwich hopes to report to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in coming weeks and possibly make recommendations on the scope and duration of the moratorium.

He said that among the options the government could consider would be lifting the moratorium early or lifting it with conditions. “There really haven’t been any discussions about lengthening it,” Bromwich said.

As Bromwich spoke, crews in the Gulf were preparing to transfer the failed blowout preventer — a key piece of evidence that was raised last weekend from the seafloor — to a barge that will bring it to shore to be analyzed by government investigators.

At the forum in Biloxi at a convention center across the street from the beach along the Gulf, Bromwich heard from industry experts and elected officials about oil spill response methods and concerns over the deepwater drilling moratorium.

Gary Rook, technical director for Edison Chouest Offshore, said that more than four months after the rig explosion, concerns remain about the ability of the industry to respond to another disaster. He said there needs to be better equipment, more rapid response and more resources dedicated to disaster preparedness.

“Much of the current equipment is not effective in rough weather,” Rook said.

He also implored government to allow skimming operations in the future to run 24 hours a day instead of the 12 hours they were allowed with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Bromwich told the panel that the “industry must develop more effective oil spill response techniques.”

Meanwhile, BP is inching closer to plugging its well for good. The so-called bottom kill operation in which mud and cement will be pumped in through a relief well to seal the busted well from the bottom was initially supposed to occur in early August. Rough weather, a decision to remove the failed blowout preventer first, testing procedures and other factors caused a number of delays.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point person on the oil spill response, told reporters Friday that he still is not ready to give a new firm timeline for completing the relief well and doing the bottom kill, but he indicated it could occur before the end of September.

The blowout preventer that failed to stop the oil spill in the first place was lifted from a mile beneath the Gulf last Saturday and secured to the deck of the Helix Q4000. A Coast Guard spokeswoman, Lt. Suzanne Kerver, said Friday that crews were preparing to transfer the 300-ton device to a barge that will bring it to a NASA facility in New Orleans to be analyzed. The transfer could take several hours and it was unclear when it would begin its journey and when it would reach shore.

A safety perimeter was expected to be set up around a caravan of vessels that will accompany the barge to shore.

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