The head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM) signaled Monday that more drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) may be in the offing in the near term.
"Since Feb. 17, when the groups organized by industry established that they had developed a suite of resources capable of dealing with subsea blowout, we have approved four deepwater permits. And more will be approved in the coming weeks and months," said BOEM Director Michael Bromwich in New Orleans.
The latest permit was issued to ExxonMobil Corp. to resume deepwater drilling in Keathley Canyon Block 919, approximately 240 miles off the Louisiana coastline south of Lafayette, LA. This is the first permit approved that designates the Marine Well Containment Co.'s system as its containment solution, according to BOEM.
The BOEM recently approved permits for ATP Oil & Gas Corp., Noble Energy and BHP Billiton to resume drilling in the deepwater Gulf (see Daily GPI, March 1). Because of what they consider a sluggish pace of the permitting, Republican lawmakers, state regulators and producers contend that -- despite the federal government's lifting of the official ban on deepwater drilling in the GOM last October -- a de facto moratorium remains in place.
The BOEM on Monday approved the first new deepwater exploration plan -- for Shell Offshore Inc. -- since the Macondo well blowout and resulting oil spill (see Daily GPI, March 22). Approval of the exploration plan is the first step. Shell still must apply for drilling permits. To get those it will have to demonstrate that it could contain a deepwater well blowout. It also will have to pass an environmental assessment for the three exploratory wells it plans to drill in 2,950 feet of water in the Augur Field, about 130 miles off the Louisiana coast.
Bromwich said Monday that the agency is taking steps to ensure a stronger firewall between the agency and those companies that it regulates, such as oil and natural gas producers.
"To address conflicts of interest, we...issued a tough new recusal policy [last August] that will reduce the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest [between BOEM and industry]. Employees in our district offices must notify their supervisors about any potential conflict of interest and request to be recused from performing any official duty in which such a conflict exists," he said (see Daily GPI, Sept. 1, 2010).
"Soon we will be issuing a broader version of the policy that applies these ethical standards across the agency. I know that this will present operational challenges for some of our district officials in the Gulf region, which are located in small communities where the primary employers are offshore companies. But the need for tough rules defining the boundaries between regulatory and the regulated is necessary and compelling."
As for the BOEM's new Investigations and Review Unit, "it will promptly and credibly respond to allegations or evidence of misconduct and unethical behavior by bureau employees," and "it will pursue allegations of misconduct against oil and gas companies involved in offshore energy projects."
The agency took these steps following the blowout of the Macondo well off the southern coast of Louisiana, which left 11 oil and gas workers dead last April (see Daily GPI, April 22, 2010).
Bromwich said he plans to tour 10 universities nationwide to discuss changes at the agency. He further noted that the BOEM will be hiring environmental scientists in the coming months to work in fields ranging from environmental studies to National Environmental Policy Act review to environmental compliance, which are critical to the balanced development of offshore resources.
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