Feds end exemptions for deep-water drilling

Environmental review required for new projects

The Obama administration announced Monday that it is requiring environmental reviews for all new deep-water oil drilling, the order falling on the first day of the Gulf of Mexico’s shrimping season.

The requirement means an end, at least for now, to the kinds of exemptions that allowed BP PLC to drill its blown-out well in the Gulf with little scrutiny. The announcement was made in response to a report by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which found that decades-old data provided the basis for exempting BP’s drilling permits from any extensive review.

The Interior Department said the ban on so-called “categorical exclusions” for deep-water drilling would be in place pending full review of how such exemptions are granted.

“Our decision-making must be fully informed by an understanding of the potential environmental consequences of federal actions permitting offshore oil and gas development,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

For now, new deep-water drilling is under a temporary moratorium in the Gulf. Once the moratorium is lifted, the Interior Department’s new policy is likely to make it much more time-consuming for oil companies to move forward with new deep-water projects, since environmental assessments will be required along the way.

Shallow-water drilling also will be subjected to stricter environmental scrutiny under the new policy.

BP’s ability to get environmental exemptions from the Minerals Management Service led to some of the harshest criticism of the now-defunct agency in the wake of the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. About 206 million gallons spilled into the Gulf before BP stopped the leaking.

The report by the Council on Environmental Quality sheds new light on the granting of those categorical exclusions. The report says that the exclusions under which BP operated were written in 1981 and 1986. That was long before the boom in deep-water drilling that was propelled by the development of dramatic new technologies for reaching deep into the sea floor.

Meanwhile on Monday, commercial fishermen began trawling Louisiana’s waters for white shrimp. The federal government has said that seafood pulled from the these areas of the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat despite all the oil that gushed into the Gulf.

More than a fifth of federal waters in the Gulf remain closed because of fear of oil contaminating the seafood.

“Uncertainty has ruled this whole shrimping season,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “Our brand has been tarnished and we have a lot of work to do ahead of us.”

Shrimpers are worried about what prices their catch will bring and what effects the oil spill will have on the shrimp population, he said.

“We are hoping for the best,” said Errol Voisin, plant manager at Lafitte Frozen Seafood in Lafitte, La.

To drive home the message that Gulf seafood is safe to eat, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke had lunch with fishermen from the Gulf at a seafood restaurant Monday and met with industry officials to discuss their concerns. President Obama also has made a point of dining on Gulf Coast seafood, traveling to Panama City, Fla., last weekend to declare the region’s beaches “open for business.”

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