Workers search for tar balls on an Alabama beach this September, more than… (Dave Martin, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — BP won approval from the Interior Department for a plan to explore for oil and gas in deep-water areas of the Gulf of Mexico, moving the company closer to drilling new wells barred after the blowout of its Macondo well touched off the country's worst offshore environmental disaster.
The exploration plan was the first BP had submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the gulf. Although it received approval, BP will still need permits to drill a particular well.
The agency approved the exploration plan under more stringent rules it developed after the Deepwater Horizon explosion revealed uneven, sometimes lax oversight of offshore energy production by the Minerals Management Service, the new agency's predecessor.
For an exploration plan to be approved, a company must now submit a range of specific technical and environmental information as well as plans to handle a worst-case spill scenario in the event of a blowout. The bureau also does its own environmental assessment of the drill sites.
The oil industry and its congressional allies have complained that the bureau is issuing approvals too slowly, and they have demanded that it return to the rapid clip of approvals that existed before the oil disaster.
BP, still the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf of Mexico, did not have to meet more-stringent requirements than any of the other 43 companies that have had exploration plans approved.
David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that barring litigation, the chances were highly likely that BP would get drilling permits. Pettit said that while the new regulatory agency is better than its predecessor, more work needs to be done to improve offshore drilling safety, including pushing for "a redesign of deep-sea blowout preventers, and moderniz[ing] cleanup procedures" in the event of a spill.
BP proposes drilling as many as four wells at sites it acquired in lease sales in 1997 and 2003, according to the bureau. The wells would be drilled in water depths of 6,019 to 6,034 feet, and they would be 192 miles from the closest Louisiana shoreline.