* BP holds 46.5 percent interest in Noble’s Santiago well
* Noble is operator, makes drilling decisions
(Adds comment from Markey, analyst)
By Kristen Hays
HOUSTON, March 1 (Reuters) - BP Plc, (BP.L) (BP.N) whose Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history last year, co-owns the well that was granted the first deepwater drilling permit since the disaster.
BP is Noble Energy Inc’s (NBL.N) partner in the well, holding a 46.5 percent interest, BP said.
Noble operates the Santiago well that received a permit from U.S. regulators on Monday to resume drilling in the Mississippi Canyon area of the Gulf, about 70 miles (110 km) south of the Louisiana coast.
“Given how the people of the Gulf view BP, this drilling partnership could be called ‘Noble meets ignoble’,” said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Natural resources Committee.
“While the optics of this situation contain their own special irony, the reality is that Noble Energy has met the federal government’s necessary metrics for safety and response,” Markey said.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved the permit before U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s appearance before two congressional hearings this week.
The approval also came nearly two weeks after a federal judge ordered the Interior Department to decide within 30 days whether to approve five permit applications.
Michael Bromwich, who heads the offshore drilling regulating agency, insisted on on Monday there were “no politics involved” in approving the permit.
Whitney Stanco, energy policy analyst for MF Global’s Washington research group, said the permit approval had “excellent political timing” for the Obama Administration amid Middle East turmoil, rising gasoline prices and Salazar’s upcoming appearances.
“We don’t think it was entirely premeditated,” Whitney said.
BOEMRE did not immediately respond to a request for comment about BP’s part ownership.
Noble suspended operations on the Santiago well, which had been drilled more than 13,500 feet beneath the seabed, in June last year the Obama Administration temporarily banned deepwater drilling in response to the Macondo disaster.
The ban was lifted in October, but no deepwater drilling permits had been approved until Monday.
Last week Salazar and Bromwich were in Houston last Friday to see elements of two rapid-response systems developed to satisfy a new requirement that Gulf producers be ready to handle a Macondo-like spill again.
Noble is working with Helix Energy Solutions Group’s (HLX.N) system, which includes two surface vessels BP used to collect and burn off some of the more than 4 million barrels that spewed from the Macondo well. (Additional reporting by Tom Doggett in Washington and Erwin Seba in Houston;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)