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White House may end ban on deepwater drilling early

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 7:25 PM

The Obama administration may end its ban on deepwater drilling "significantly in advance" of its Nov. 30 expiration date, the administration's top official in charge of drilling told reporters Tuesday.

Michael Bromwich, who heads the agency that has replaced the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, will hold a series of public forums starting Wednesday in New Orleans. The meetings will explore the current system for drilling and workplace safety, oil and gas containment, and spill response. The eight hearings on the Gulf Coast and in Anchorage, he said, will determine "whether we can develop a level of comfort on all three issues that would enable the [interior] secretary to lift the moratorium in a principled way" before Nov. 30.

In the wake of the BP oil spill, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar imposed a drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico that has left 33 deepwater wells idle.

In addition to addressing the controversial moratorium, which several oil industry officials and Gulf Coast lawmakers have criticized for delivering an economic blow to the region, Bromwich laid out his vision for creating an assertive federal agency that will police offshore drilling across the country. He noted he has asked the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to lend him prosecutors and agents, respectively, and he is hiring from the private sector to staff an investigations and review unit of eight to 10 people that will explore allegations of wrongdoing within the agency and the drilling industry.

"We have a caseload already and we're working on it," he said. "We will conduct an aggressive investigation of oil and gas company and enforcement of regulations, which has not been a hallmark of this agency in the past."

Bromwich's agency -- the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement -- is also drafting new recusal rules for its employees to ensure an arm's length relationship between regulators and those they oversee, he said, adding there is both the perception and reality that "especially in the Gulf region, there's a limited pool from which we can draw from" in terms of regulators. "That's problematic, for a variety of reasons."

The agency is also looking at rules to enhance blowout preventers and a range of other safety devices, Bromwich said, but he added that neither the industry nor the government could guarantee the public that they would never see an accident like the one that took place on the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20: "No one can be able to say you'll be able to reduce the chances of another explosion to zero."

He added that there is no doubt the agency lacked the resources in the past to police offshore drilling: "We've got 62 inspectors around the country for thousands of rigs. It's preposterous."

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