The Obama administration hopes to lift a freeze on deepwater drilling well before its scheduled Nov. 30 expiration date, the nation's top drilling regulator said Tuesday.
Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said he and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar were gathering information to decide whether to revise or even lift the ban, which has shut down drilling at 33 ocean wells in the wake of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I think it is everybody's hope that we will feel comfortable enough that the moratorium can be lifted significantly in advance of Nov. 30," Bromwich told reporters Tuesday. "But I can't say when."
Bromwich made the comment as previewed a series of public forums he is hosting on the Gulf spill, starting Wednesday in New Orleans. Industry leaders, environmentalists, academic experts and others have been invited to the daylong sessions, which also will include testimony from federal, state and local leaders and members of the public.
The forums will focus on technical issues related to deepwater drilling and workplace safety, as well as oil spill response and containment, Bromwich said, although it is likely the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling imposed by the Obama administration will also be a flashpoint of discussion.
Business groups and Gulf Coast political leaders say the ban on permits for new wells is crippling the oil and gas industry and costing thousands of jobs, even aboard rigs not operated by BP PLC, which is responsible for the Gulf disaster. Production at existing wells continues.
Bromwich said he knows the drilling freeze is causing hardship, but said the Obama administration is committed to ensuring that drilling is safe and that spills can be contained before allowing normal operations to resume.
He said he was pleased at the response by the oil and gas industry to regulatory changes initiated in the wake of the oil spill and optimistic that both regulators and the industry now understand the dangers inherent in offshore drilling.
He said the government and industry leaders alike were caught "flat-footed" by the disaster, which came after four decades in which there were few serious offshore oil spills in the United States.
"There was a level of self-confidence and complacency, based on the absence of such an incident over the last several decades, that caused people to suspend skepticism" about the dangers of drilling in deep water far offshore, Bromwich said, adding that his comment applied both to industry and his own agency.
Bromwich took over the drilling agency, formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, in June after Salazar and President Barack Obama forced out his predecessor, saying she did not move fast enough to implement needed reforms.
A former federal prosecutor with no experience in the oil industry, Bromwich has taken over an agency in crisis. He joked that he set a world record for most appearances before congressional panels in his first few weeks on the job.
Besides the daylong forum Wednesday at Tulane University, informational meetings also will be held Aug. 10 in Mobile, Ala., and Aug. 11 in Pensacola, Fla. Later sessions are expected in Santa Barbara, Calif.; Anchorage, Alaska; Biloxi, Miss.; Houston and Lafayette, La.
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