Interior approves first deepwater drilling permit since BP spill

The Interior Department on Monday approved the first Gulf of Mexico deepwater drilling permit since imposing a freeze after the BP oil spill began.

The permit — awarded to Houston-based Noble Energy — follows months of criticism from Republicans, drill-state Democrats and the oil industry, who alleged that Interior was dragging its feet. But department officials maintained they were taking needed steps to lessen the chance of another disaster.

“This permit represents a significant milestone for us and for the offshore oil and gas industry, and is an important step towards safely developing deepwater energy supplies offshore,” said Michael Bromwich, director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), in a statement Monday.

“This permit was issued for one simple reason: the operator successfully demonstrated that it can drill its deepwater well safely and that it is capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur. We expect further deepwater permits to be approved in coming weeks and months based on the same process that led to the approval of this permit,” he added.

The department is requiring drillers to show compliance with a suite of beefed-up rig safety standards, including the ability to swiftly tackle runaway wells like BP’s ill-fated Macondo well, which dumped more than four million barrels of oil into the Gulf over several months last year.

Interior lifted its formal ban on deepwater drilling projects in October, but resisted calls for a quick resumption of permitting.

The permit comes after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his top deputies traveled to Houston late last week to review enhanced containment systems developed by a pair of companies for use by Gulf operators should another blowout occur.

It also comes days before Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is slated to testify before House and Senate committees this week about the agency’s budget plan, where he is sure to face tough questioning from drilling advocates about the pace of permitting.

Republicans have increased their attacks on Interior amid unrest in North Africa and the Middle East that sent oil prices above $100 per barrel last week.

“The fact that the secretary has to come to Capitol Hill to testify before lawmakers seems to have suddenly focused his attention on the permitting issue,” said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “The good news is if they can issue one permit, they can certainly issue more.”

The permit is for a project roughly 70 miles southeast of Venice, La., according to Interior.

“Initial drilling on this well began April 16, 2010, in 6,500 feet water depth, and the activities were suspended June 12, 2010, under the temporary drilling moratorium, issued in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill,” BOEMRE said in a summary of the permit approval.

Here’s a bit more from their announcement:

“As part of its approval process, the bureau reviewed Noble Energy’s containment capability available for the specific well proposed in the permit application. Noble Energy contracted with the Helix Well Containment Group (Helix) to use its capping stack to stop the flow of oil should a well control event occur. The capabilities of the capping stack meet the requirements that are specific to the characteristics of the proposed well.”

—This post was updated at 4:47 p.m.