Interior claims big step toward allowing deepwater drilling

The Interior Department may allow some deepwater oil-and-gas drilling projects halted after last year’s BP spill to resume without requiring companies to submit revised exploration and development plans for environmental review.

The policy announced Monday comes as the Obama administration is under immense political pressure from the industry and ascendant Republicans to greenlight projects following the October removal of the formal deepwater moratorium.

Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) said it notified 13 companies — including Chevron and Shell — on Monday that they may be able to resume drilling without submitting new plans for review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But the regulators stressed that the companies must be in compliance with beefed-up safety rules issued in recent months before their projects in the Gulf of Mexico may proceed.

BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich said the agency is bolstering its NEPA reviews in general, but that some projects have faced “special circumstances.”

“As we move forward, we are taking into account the special circumstances of those companies whose operations were interrupted by the moratorium and ensuring that they are able to resume previously-approved activities. For those companies that were in the midst of operations at the time of the deepwater suspensions, today’s notification is a significant step toward resuming their permitted activity,” Bromwich said in a statement.

The announcement comes just days before the opening of the 112th Congress under GOP rule of the House.

Senior Republicans — such as incoming House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (Wash.) and incoming Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.) — have signaled that they plan to attack Interior Department policies that they argue have needlessly stifled development.

A BOEMRE press agent said the regulators had previously clarified in a mid-December guidance that new environmental analyses were needed for new plans and for new permits on previously approved plans.

Monday’s announcement, in contrast, addresses projects that, before operations were halted, had begun drilling under previously approved plans with existing permits that were “mid-activity.”

BOEMRE said that companies won’t have to revise their previous plans if the “worst-case discharge” for the project — calculated pursuant to one of the safety guidelines issued in June — is “less than the worst-case discharge estimate included by the company in its Oil Spill Response Plan.”

“However, if the worst-case discharge exceeds the Oil Spill Response Plan, further reviews will be conducted,” BOEMRE said.

Monday’s notice was sent to the following companies:

ATP Oil & Gas Corp.; BHP Billiton Petroleum (GOM) Inc.; Chevron USA Inc.; Cobalt International Energy; ENI U.S. Operating Company 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.