August 3, 2010 / 9:36 PM / 9 years ago

Interior hopes drilling ban can be lifted early

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top official at the U.S. Interior Department on Tuesday said he hoped the ban on deepwater oil drilling could be lifted “significantly” ahead of the current November deadline.

“It’s everybody’s hope that we will feel comfortable enough that the moratorium can be lifted significantly in advance of November 30, but I can’t say when because I haven’t gathered the information yet,” Michael Bromwich, head of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told reporters at a briefing.

Interior is holding public meetings throughout the Gulf, California, and Alaska to gather input on possible adjustments to this drilling ban. Bromwich said he would report findings from these forums and other separate meetings to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a regular basis.

Bromwich said he does not support lifting the agency’s deepwater drilling ban at specific sites once inspectors determine companies meet certain safety requirements.

“Doing it on a rig-by-rig basis when you have different sets of eyes and different judgments being made is an invitation to controversy,” Bromwich told reporters at press briefing.

“I think a better way to proceed is to try to evaluate risk factors for different categories of drilling or different categories of equipment,” Bromwich added.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would end the agency’s drilling ban for oil companies that adhere to new safety mandates.

The massive BP oil spill spurred the government’s original six-month moratorium on exploratory drilling in waters at depths more than 500 feet.

A federal court struck down the initial ban, calling it too broad, but the government issued a new moratorium last month blocking deepwater drilling through the end of November.

Bromwich was tapped by the Obama administration in June to help guide the reorganization of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, formerly known as the Mineral Management Service.

The agency, which is responsible for regulating offshore drilling, has come under fire since the spill for having too cozy a relationship with industries it’s supposed to oversee.

A former prosecutor and inspector general for the Justice Department, Bromwich has started setting up an internal investigative team to uncover wrongdoing in the department.

This investigative team is already looking into some allegations against agency employees, Bromwich said, but he declined to provide any details.

Bromwich said he thinks the current penalties for companies violating drilling regulations are inadequate.

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by David Gregorio

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