Interior officials said Monday that the department will restrict its use of environmental waivers (categorical exclusions) for offshore oil and natural gas development to activities with limited environmental risk, while it undertakes a comprehensive review of its National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process and the use of categorical exclusions for exploration and drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.

In addition Michael R. Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM), said Interior plans to conduct a new environmental analysis of the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) that will help provide information to guide leasing and development decisions. BOEM will publish in the days ahead a notice in the Federal Register of its intent to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement of the GOM.

Limited use of categorical exclusions will allow BOEM to move forward with new permits for shallow-water producers who have provided additional information about potential blowout scenarios and implemented additional safety measures for rigs and platforms, according to Bromwich.

He further said he has instructed his staff not to use categorical exclusions to approve deepwater drilling activities similar to those of the doomed Deepwater Horizon rig even after the moratorium is lifted.

Responding quickly to the BOEM announcement, API Upstream Director Erik Milito said limiting the use of categorical exclusions would require more extensive environmental reviews for deepwater projects and could delay development and job creation.

"We're concerned the change could add significantly to the department's workload, stretching the timeline for approval of important energy development projects with no clear return in environmental protection. Environmental review of offshore operations under existing rules is extensive, and decisions on categorical exclusions, which are intended to avoid repetitive analysis, require review," Milito said.

Under a categorical exclusion, the Interior can waive certain environmental reviews -- thus shortening the overall review process -- associated with obtaining permits for offshore drilling. These waivers have caused a lot of fireworks on Capitol Hill in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon exploding and sinking off the southern coast of Louisiana in April.

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