First post-spill deep-water drilling permit approved

The Obama administration approved on Monday the first deep-water drilling permit in the Gulf of Mexico since it banned the practice in light of last year's massive BP oil spill.

The permit is going to Noble Energy, an independent oil and gas company that operates in the Gulf's deep waters and around the world. Drilling on the well is expected to start in April, one year after BP's Macondo well exploded. The government estimates that more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf in the three months that the well went uncapped.

"This permit was issued for one simple reason: The operator successfully demonstrated that it can drill its deep-water well safely and that it is capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur," said Michael Bromwich, director of the Interior Department Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation, and Enforcement.

Bromwich dismissed the notion that Monday's permit issuance was politically motivated in light of two hearings this week on Interior's budget at which Secretary Ken Salazar will testify.

"There is absolutely no politics associated with this. Anybody's upcoming testimony or anything else had nothing to do with approval or timing," Bromwich said. "This application has been working its way through our system for the last several weeks."

He said he expects to issue more deep-water permits in the coming weeks but did not offer any details as to when the next one will be issued. He also reiterated his concern that a lack of money and permitting personnel will hamper his agency's ability to move forward promptly and effectively.

"We are taking these applications to drill as they come," Bromwich said on a conference call on Monday. Seven permits are pending for deep-water drilling in the Gulf.

In the approval for Noble, Bromwich pointed to the company's contract with the Helix Well Containment Group on a containment system to ensure that oil could be contained in deep water should a spill occur. He cautioned that "no one should take this as a blanket endorsement" for Helix's system or any other system, such as systems set up by the ExxonMobil-led Marine Well Containment Company.

Bromwich said he hopes Monday's approval will send a positive signal to the industry. Corporations and lawmakers from oil-producing regions have complained that the administration is slow-walking the permitting process.

"Industry has been waiting for a signal that deep-water drilling would be allowed to resume, and I think many will take this as that signal," Bromwich said. He added that he hopes the news will "encourage other operators who may have been holding back to file additional permits."

The oil industry and its proponents in Congress are cautiously applauding the news.

"While one deep-water permit is a start, it is by no means reason to celebrate," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La. "I'm still demanding that the Obama administration allow at least 15 deep-water drilling permits before I release my hold on an Interior Department nominee."

Vitter is holding up the nomination of Dan Ashe as head of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service. His fellow Louisiana senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu, supports that hold. Landrieu said Monday evening that she is continuing to support Vitter's hold, despite the permit being issued.

In related news, President Obama announced on Monday the final member of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which is made up of five representatives of each of the five Gulf states. It was established by an executive order that Obama issued on October 5. Monday's appointment was of N. Gunter Guy Jr., a state representative from Alabama.

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