- Associated Press - Thursday, September 30, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Thursday imposed new rules to make offshore drilling safer, but said it was not yet ready to lift a temporary ban on deepwater drilling.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called offshore drilling inherently risky and said, “We will only lift the moratorium when I, as secretary of Interior, am comfortable that we have significantly reduced those risks.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the new regulations “a big step forward” and said they moved the administration closer to lifting the deepwater drilling ban.

“The president does not oppose the offshore exploration for oil,” Mr. Gibbs told reporters. “We need to do this in a way that is technologically safe, technologically proven,” to avoid catastrophic blowouts such as the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The new rules, which take effect immediately, are designed to improve safety, both in drilling and on offshore rigs, Mr. Salazar said.

“We are raising the bar for safety, oversight and environmental protection,” he said Thursday in a speech at a Washington think tank. “The oil and gas industry needs to expect a dynamic regulatory environment as we bring the U.S.’s offshore programs up to the gold standard we need to have.”

Under the new rules, operators will be required to comply with tougher requirements for everything from well design and cementing practices to blowout preventers and employee training. They will also need to develop comprehensive plans to manage risks and improve workplace safety.

Mr. Salazar has said the new rules must be in place before the Interior Department lifts a ban on deepwater drilling. The ban is set to expire Nov. 30, but officials have said they hope to end it early.

The rules announced Thursday are not the final step, Mr. Salazar said, noting that the Interior Department is likely to propose requiring that emergency cutoff devices known as blowout preventers have a second set of blind shear rams — the parts that can shear off and shut down wells in the event of a catastrophic blowout.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said the oil industry group will review the rules. The API has called for a clear, practical and well-defined review process that will protect the environment and allow drilling to resume.

“We cannot have an approval process that creates unpredictable delays that could place at risk the flow of domestic energy in our country,” said Erik Milito, a lobbyist for the group. “Operators want regulations that provide certainty.”

Extended delays in permit reviews and approvals are likely to discourage investment in new projects — hampering job creation and restricting energy production, Mr. Milito said.

Even after the temporary ban on exploratory drilling is lifted, drilling is unlikely to resume quickly.

“You’re not going to see drilling going on the next day, or even the next week,” Michael Bromwich, director of the agency that oversees offshore drilling, said this week. “It’s going to take some time.”

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