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Interior Department OKs first new deepwater oil and gas exploration plan since disaster

Published: Monday, March 21, 2011, 2:02 PM

Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune By Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune

WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich announced Monday that, for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the bureau has approved a deepwater oil and gas exploration plan, submitted by Shell Offshore Inc., following the completion of a site-specific environmental assessment.

As explained by Salazar and Bromwich, an exploration plan describes all exploration activities planned by the operator for a specific lease or leases, including the timing of these activities, information concerning drilling vessels, the location of each planned well, and other relevant information that needs to meet important safety standards. Once a plan is approved, additional new applications for permits to drill can be issued.

According to BOEMRE, Shell’s plan supplements its original exploration plan for the same lease in the company’s Auger field, which was approved in 1985. This plan would allow for the Shell to seek permits to drill three exploratory wells in about 2,950 water depth, 130 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

Based on its review, BOEMRE said it found no evidence that the proposed action would significantly affect the quality of the human environment, meaning that an environmental impact statement was not required. That allowed BOEMRE to issue a “finding of no significant impact,” enabling the supplemental exploration plan to be approved.”

“The successful completion of this environmental assessment, and the resulting approval of Shell’s exploration plan, unmistakably demonstrates that oil and gas exploration can continue responsibly in deep water,” said Bromwich. “Shell’s submission has satisfied the heightened environmental standards that we are now applying and I am confident that other operators can satisfy the same standards.””

“The reforms we have implemented have set a strong new standard for safety and environmental protection for offshore operations,” said Salazar. “This exploration plan meets the new standards for environmental review and marks another important step toward safer deepwater exploration.”

A spokesman for Shell said that the exploratory plan for what it calls its Cardamom project is “significant in that it sets a regulatory template for the drilling of new exploration wells and has met the full suite of new regulatory requirements for offshore drilling.”

“We believe this reflects Shell’s robust and comprehensive approach to responsible offshore development and demonstrate Shell’s strategic focus on progressing new sources of domestic energy,” said spokesman Kelly op de Weegh.

“We are encouraged by today’s decision,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association. “Approval of Shell’s supplementary exploration plan to drill three new deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico is certainly welcome news for the offshore industry. This decision is a huge first step in a process which we hope will successfully lead to new operations and a rapid return to work for the thousands of people employed by our member companies.”

“This is a step in the right direction assuming it leads to the approval of more deepwater exploratory permits. But that’s the bottom line I’m focused on,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who has placed on hold on President Obama’s nomination of Dan Ashe to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service until Interior issues at least 15 deepwater drilling permits.”When I started my hold, we were at zero deepwater permits. Now we’re at three. So the math is simple: I’ll lift my hold when we get 12 more.”


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