WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Monday it will allow 13 companies to resume deepwater drilling without additional environmental scrutiny, just months after saying it would require strict reviews for new drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill.
The government said it wasn't breaking its promise to require environmental reviews because the 13 companies, including Chevron USA and Shell Offshore, had started drilling the wells without detailed environmental studies.
Drilling was suspended last year when the administration imposed a monthslong moratorium after the BP spill. The ban was lifted in October, but drilling hasn't resumed in waters deeper than 500 feet in the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. officials said the companies must comply with new policies and rules before resuming activity at 16 gulf wells. All but three are exploratory wells — the same type BP was drilling when the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon rig occurred.
The April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
"For those companies that were in the midst of operations at the time of the deepwater suspensions (last spring), (Monday's) notification is a significant step toward resuming their permitted activity," said Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The decision is a victory for the drilling companies, which in the past had routinely won broad waivers from rules requiring detailed environmental studies.
After the BP disaster, the Obama administration pledged it would require companies to complete environmental reviews before being allowed to drill for oil.
The administration has been under heavy pressure from the oil industry, gulf state leaders and congressional Republicans to speed up drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which has come to a near halt since the moratorium on deepwater drilling was imposed last spring.
The delay is hurting big oil companies such as Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, which have billions of dollars in investments tied up in gulf projects that are on hold. Smaller operators such as ATP Oil & Gas, Murphy Exploration & Production-USA, and Noble Energy also have been affected.
A federal report said the moratorium probably caused a temporary loss of 8,000 to 12,000 jobs in the gulf region.
Bromwich and other officials stressed the policy announced Monday was not a reversal of its previous plans not to grant waivers, known as categorical exclusions for deepwater projects.
Instead, officials characterized the action as a sort of grandfather clause that applies only to companies that had begun drilling before the BP blowout.