* Official says Interior won’t become permitting mill
* BP spill changed agency outlook on regulation
* U.S. looks to add regulatory staff (Adds Bromwich comments from Vancouver conference)
By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, Oct 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. offshore drilling agency will not become a “permitting mill” now that its deepwater drilling moratorium has been lifted, the agency’s head said on Monday.
In an op-ed posted on CNN’s website, Michael Bromwich, head of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, blasted critics who have complained unnecessary permitting delays will hamper offshore oil development even though the drilling ban has ended.
“That judgment is based on the standards of the past when safety and environmental standards were fewer,” Bromwich said.
Interior ended its temporary ban on exploratory drilling at depths more than 500 feet (152 meters) last week after imposing new rules aimed at preventing another disastrous drilling accident like the BP (BP.L) spill that ravaged the Gulf for months this summer.
The BP accident, which spurred the drilling ban, changed the agency’s outlook on regulation, Bromwich said.
“Those who expect our agency to be a permitting mill... misjudge the impact of Deepwater Horizon on the people responsible for regulating the industry and their collective commitment to safety and environmental protection,” Bromwich added.
The agency has said it hopes to begin approving permits by the end of the year. Bromwich stressed that “political considerations” are not responsible for a slower permitting pace for offshore oil and gas projects.
Instead, he blamed the more stringent drilling regulations and a lack of agency resources for permitting delays.
Shallow water drillers, who were not covered by the drilling ban, complained lengthy waiting times for permits have amounted to a de facto ban on all oil drilling.
Additional Interior employees have been assigned to the Gulf of Mexico office to speed up the permitting process, but Bromwich said his agency will not “rubber stamp” permits.
Bromwich told a meeting of drilling safety officials on Monday that a lesson learned from the Gulf of Mexico spill was that U.S. regulators had lacked sufficient staff and resources to keep pace with the industry.
“It’s quite right that we will never reduce (the risk of an accident) to zero, but we had moved too far away from zero before,” he told the International Regulators Forum in Vancouver.
Bromwich said he hopes as many as 200 inspectors, engineers and other staff can eventually be added to the agency to improve oversight, as regulators tighten standards for equipment and environmental safety. (With reporting by Allan Dowd in Vancouver; editing by Lisa Shumaker and Rob Wilson)