WASHINGTON — BP won approval from the Interior Department for a plan to explore for oil and gas in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, moving the company closer to drilling new wells halted when the blowout of its Macondo well touched off an environmental disaster last year.
The exploration plan, approved Friday, was the first BP submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing 5 million barrels of oil into the gulf. Although the bureau approved the plan, BP still needs permits to drill a particular well.
The bureau approved the exploration plan under more stringent rules it developed for the industry after the Deepwater Horizon explosion revealed the uneven, sometimes lax oversight of offshore energy production by the Minerals Management Service, the new agency's predecessor.
For an exploration plan to be approved, a company must now submit a range of specific technical and environmental information as well as plans to handle a worst-case spill scenario in the event of a blowout. The bureau also does its own environmental assessment of the drill sites.
David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that barring litigation, the chances were highly likely that BP would get drilling permits. Pettit said that while the new bureau is better than its predecessor, more work needs to be done to improve drilling safety.
BP proposes drilling up to four wells in sites it acquired in lease sales in 1997 and 2003, according to the bureau. The wells would be drilled in water depths ranging from 6,019 to 6,034 feet, and they would be located 192 miles from the closest Louisiana shoreline.
BP remains the largest oil and gas producer in the gulf.
AUDIT OF FUND: Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Roger Wicker of Mississippi won Senate approval Friday for an independent audit of the $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate victims of the 2010 gulf oil spill. The move amounts to a slap at Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, who has been criticized for the way the calculations of the payments are made. "I have said all along, we welcome an independent audit," Feinberg said in response.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.