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* Member states, governments need to give final endorsement
* Environmentalists see progress, but not enough
By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS, Feb 21 The European Union on Thursday agreed its first law to regulate safety in offshore oil and gas drilling across the 27-member bloc and seek to prevent any repeat of BP's catastrophic Gulf of Mexico spill.
Some environmental campaigners said the law, which still needs final endorsement from member states and the European Parliament, was not robust enough. Others argued it could help to protect Arctic waters from oil spills.
Politicians from Britain, a major EU offshore producer, were among the first to welcome it.
They argue British standards of safety, based on decades of experience in the tough environment of the North Sea, are already excellent and the new law would oblige others to follow suit.
"These rules will make sure that the highest safety standards already mostly in place in some member states will be followed at every oil and gas platform across Europe," EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in a statement.
"Past accidents have shown the devastating consequences when things go badly wrong offshore. Recent 'near-misses' in EU waters reminded us of the need for a stringent safety regime."
The Commission reviewed existing national safety rules in the aftermath of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico accident in May 2010 and said it wanted to guarantee the world's highest safety, health and environmental standards throughout the European Union.
EMERGENCY PLANNING, RISK ASSESSMENT
The legislation covers the criteria for awarding operating licences and penalties for breaching safety standards, which could lead to loss of licence.
Companies will also have to carry out emergency planning and risk assessment and will be fully liable for any environmental damage up to about 370 km (200 nautical miles) from the coast.
Although the new rules will only apply to EU waters, the Commission says it will work with international partners to promote such standards across the world.
In a statement, Green members of the European Parliament urged the assembly not to give final approval.
Austrian Green politician Eva Lichtenberger said the new legislation did not close all the gaps in safety regimes.
"It also fails to call for a moratorium on drilling in sensitive or extreme environments (like the Arctic)," she said.
But environmental campaigning group Greenpeace said the preliminary deal was positive and its demand for risk assessment could deter unscrupulous operators.
"This deal on the EU safety law for offshore drilling would go some way to ensuring that oil companies think long and hard before they embark on a risky adventure in the Arctic," Greenpeace EU climate policy director Joris den Blanken said.
"Unfortunately, this deal still leaves too much wiggle-room in its implementation," he added.
Britain was among those who campaigned for the law to be a directive, meaning each member state is left to transcribe it into its own domestic legislation, rather than an EU regulation that would automatically apply across the 27 members once approved.
British Conservative members of the European Parliament said they had headed off EU proposals that could have lowered standards in the North Sea.
"Instead of levelling safety standards down, we will be encouraging the rest of Europe to match Britain's high standards," said British Conservative Vicky Ford.