Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — Nearly six months after the nation’s worst oil disaster, the Obama administration on Tuesday said it had formally lifted its moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The move had been expected after the White House signaled Tuesday morning that it was going to lift the moratorium, which was praised by environmentalists but sharply criticized by businesses and some government leaders in the region who argued that the ban was an economic burden.
As part of the decision, the Obama administration said it would continue with tougher safety requirements designed to prevent a repeat of the April 20 explosion and fire on an offshore oil rig that killed 11 workers.
“Operators who play by the rules and clear the higher bar can be allowed to resume” drilling, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a telephone news conference Tuesday.
“The oil and gas industry will be operating under tighter rules, stronger oversight and in a regulatory environment that will remain dynamic as we continue to build on the reforms we have already implemented,” Salazar said.
Even though the ban has been lifted, it will take several weeks before the needed permits are approved, Michael Bromwich, director of the agency that oversees offshore drilling, said on Tuesday.
At an earlier briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs signaled to reporters that the moratorium would be lifted shortly. He, too, stressed the new safety requirements for “worst-case scenario” strategies from oil companies.
The Obama administration ordered the moratorium on May 27 after the BP oil disaster.
The nation watched fascinated through the summer as the oil company and the government worked to cap the well, which spewed millions of barrels of oil into the gulf waters, becoming the nation’s worst such disaster. An estimated 200 million gallons of oil poured into the gulf before BP announced in September that a relief well had been drilled to the site and formally killed the well, deep under water.
The incident also became a political hurdle for the Obama administration, which sought to avoid unfavorable comparisons with the Bush administration’s questionable handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Obama and his family visited the area, and the president pledged to make BP pay for the environmental damage to the region.
BP has said it has already paid or pledged more than $32 billion in claims and for the costs of shutting down the well.
As part of the administration’s effort, it imposed a six-month moratorium that was scheduled to expire Nov. 30.