Updated: Drilling ban decision imminent

The Obama administration is set to announce its plans to lift or modify the government’s deep-water drilling ban later this afternoon, potentially ending the moratorium more than a month before its Nov. 30 expiration date.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has been reviewing the issue since Oct. 1, when he received recommendations on the drilling ban from Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The pair are scheduled to speak to reporters about the deep-water drilling suspensions at 12 p.m. central time.

Earlier today, at a Platts Energy Podium, Bromwich called the announcement on the moratorium “imminent.” He has repeatedly suggested that the ban could be lifted early, but that new drilling would be subject to a swath of new safety rules, government mandates and enhanced inspections.

Any decision to green-light new deep-water wells risks alienating environmentalists and longtime offshore-drilling foes.

“We know that you’re never going to be able to reduce the risk to zero,” Bromwich said at a Platts Energy Podium today. “I think there was a false sense before the Deepwater Horizon that the risks were zero. But we do believe … that the public should feel safe that in the not too distant future, deep-water drilling will be able to resume in an environmentally appropriate way.”

Industry and administration officials have acknowledged that even when the ban is lifted, rigs won’t immediately go back to work in the Gulf of Mexico.

“You’re going to need at least a couple of weeks, maybe more, for the companies to review the rules and satisfy themselves that they have met their rules,” Bromwich said. “We’re going to need to do inspections on all the rigs before we are going to be able to give the go-ahead for deep-water drilling to resume. And it will take some time for us to review the applications.”

Bromwich pledged that his agency would work swiftly to review applications for deep-water wells as soon as they come in — but insisted that he would not compromise safety just to speed up permitting.

“We will do this as expeditiously as we possibly can,” Bromwich said. “We’re not going to succumb to pressure to get these permits out as quickly as we possibly can.”

Bromwich also defended the moratorium as an important pause while new drilling safety rules were imposed.

“We believe the moratorium was necessary at the time it was imposed,” Bromwich said, “even though we know real and substantial pain has been inflicted on people, primarily in the Gulf region.”

He also countered industry criticism that the administration’s drilling rules are constantly evolving and make it difficult to make business decisions.

“There in fact was a static — an inappropriately static — regulatory environment for decades,” while industry made great advancements in drilling techniques and the federal government fell far behind, Bromwich said. “We are trying to correct that imbalance, but I think we are, to some extent, still catching up.”

The bureau won’t impose new rules simply to give the illusion of activity, he said, but “we are not going to be the captives of industry.”

“I don’t think any purpose is served by pretending that we currently have in-house (the expertise needed) to go toe-to-toe with industry,” Bromwich he added. Even so, the drilling agency will no longer be one “that unquestioningly accepts standards that are developed by industry.”

Salazar is speaking in Colorado later today at a wind-power event.