The Interior Department’s issuance of a permit to Apache Corp. last week may be a sign that the de facto moratorium on shallow-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is thawing, a Texas lawmaker said Tuesday.

“Hopefully that one permit that was issued last week for production” is the start of something, and “[we] will see more permits in the next few days,” said Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) during a joint hearing of the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

Interior awarded the permit to Apache Corp to drill in waters of less than 500 feet (see Daily GPI, July 20). It was the first producer to comply with the new safety regulations promulgated by Interior in the wake of the explosion and sinking of the BP plc-leased Deepwater Horizon rig off the southern coast of Louisiana in April.

“Apache actually started drilling Sunday because there was such a demand in the shallow water,” Green said. He noted that 19 jackup rigs representing more than 35% of the available shallow-water drilling rigs in the Gulf are now idle, putting at risk thousands of jobs.

The Obama administration imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling as a result of the Gulf oil spill. It also required all drillers — both in the deep and shallow waters — to meet new safety and environmental regulations, which in effect amounted to a de facto ban in the shallow water (see Daily GPI, June 10).

In addition to more shallow-water permitting, Green called on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to adjust the moratorium on deepwater drilling to allow workers on the less-risky wells to go back to work. “That way we wouldn’t have these rigs sailing off to somewhere else,” he said.

Diamond Offshore Drilling announced this month that it is sending one of its Gulf of Mexico deepwater rigs to Egypt and another to the Congo.

Bush administration Interior secretaries — Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne — were called to testify. Democratic leaders of the subcommittees tried to pin the blame for the Gulf disaster on Bush policies, while Republicans pointed the finger at the Democrats.

The offshore moratorium will “have repercussions far beyond the six months,” Norton said, adding it could result in “many, many years of delay.”.

She said she would not have used the Gulf disaster as the basis to restructure the Minerals Management Service (MMS). The agency has been renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). Norton noted that the structure of BOEMRE doesn’t differ much from the structure of the now-defunct MMS.

It’s sort of like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” agreed Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), and giving the agency a new “alphabet soup” name.

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