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Interior Department considers first deepwater drilling permits since BP spill

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department is reviewing its first request to conduct deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico since it lifted the ban on such activities last week, officials said Friday.

The move to review applications for new exploration in the gulf came as an environmental advocacy group filed a suit challenging the decision to end the drilling moratorium and industry groups lobbied for more accelerated permitting.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday, charging that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement and "provide the public with relevant environmental information on the effects of commencing drilling."

A group of oil and gas company representatives met with top Interior officials a day earlier to lobby for faster offshore drilling permitting along with the creation of a new Ocean Safety Institute under the Interior Department that would be a public and private partnership and focus on rig safety, spill containment and spill cleanup.

The American Petroleum Institute, BP, Chevron, Transocean, Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Shell Oil, Diamond Offshore and Hercules were represented.

Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said they met "to discuss strategies for further developing and making available blowout containment capabilities moving forward," but did not elaborate beyond that.

James Noe, senior vice president and general counsel of Hercules, a leading shallow-water drilling company, said he and his colleagues were concerned that without adequate industry input, government officials would create drilling rules that would pick "winners and losers.''

"That's not a model that works," he said.

Noe added that despite Salazar's decision Oct. 12 to end the moratorium on deepwater drilling in the gulf, federal officials were not approving permits fast enough. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has issued half a dozen permits for drilling new shallow-water wells in the past couple of weeks, bringing the total number of new well permits to 13 since the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, which is only one more than had been issued in April alone prior to the accident.

"The industry's not dead. That's good. But there's only so much fiddling around you can do on existing wells," Noe said, adding, "We've seen several hundred layoffs, but not the massive layoffs we feared."

Interior Department considers first deepwater drilling permits since BP spill 10/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 22, 2010 9:56pm]

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