Interior approves first BP drilling plan for Gulf of Mexico since 2010 oil spill

The Interior Department took a big step Friday toward allowing BP to resume deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by approving a revised exploration plan (EP) for up to four wells.

Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) emphasized that BP will be held to beefed-up safety standards imposed on drillers after last year's huge Gulf spill, and BP’s July pledge to meet additional voluntary standards.

Interior's announcement states:

This is the first EP that BP has had approved since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill. Before approving this EP, BOEM confirmed BP’s compliance with the bureau’s rigorous, heightened standards established following the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. In July 2011, BP announced additional safety enhancements and performance standards they would voluntarily implement in connection with its deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM has verified that BP has met the relevant voluntary performance standards.

The company’s activities are being carefully scrutinized after the April 2010 blowout of BP’s Macondo well, which claimed 11 lives and touched off the months-long spill that dumped several million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

BP must still obtain drilling permits for its plan to drill the wells on deepwater leases in the Gulf’s Keathley Canyon region. BP bought the leases in 1997 and 2003, and the planned wells at depths of roughly 6,000 feet are 192 miles from Louisiana’s coast, according to Interior.

Interior is also allowing BP to bid on new leases at a Gulf of Mexico sale slated for December.

While taking steps to allow BP to drill again in the deepwater Gulf, Interior’s offshore drilling branch is also moving ahead with efforts to sanction the company and its major contractors for the 2010 disaster.

BP, along with Deepwater Horizon rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton, received official notices this month that they allegedly violated offshore drilling regulations.

The notices pave the way for Interior to seek civil fines. The spill is also expected to lead to billions of dollars in separate Clean Water Act penalties, and the Justice Department is conducting a criminal probe.