BP moved a step closer to being allowed to drill new deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico when the agency that regulates U.S. offshore drilling said Friday it approved a supplemental exploration plan submitted by the oil giant.
The British firm still must obtain permits to be able to start drilling. BP PLC is seeking to drill up to four wells in the Gulf's Keathley Canyon in water that is more than 6,000 feet deep and is located 192 miles from the Louisiana shore.
The project would be the first new one drilled by BP in the Gulf since last year's Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The company has a 46 percent stake in a well already approved for drilling by Noble Energy. BP also bought out Shell's 25 percent interest in two Gulf fields in December, making BP the sole owner of both.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement said it conducted a thorough review before making its decision, and it cited additional safety enhancements and performance standards announced by BP in July. The agency said it has verified that BP has met the relevant voluntary performance standards.
In Washington, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said the approval may be premature.
"Comprehensive safety legislation hasn't passed Congress, and BP hasn't paid the fines they owe for their spill, yet BP is being given back the keys to drill in the Gulf," Markey said.
A deepwater drilling moratorium that was painful for the industry and Gulf states that rely on drilling for jobs and tax revenue was imposed after the April 2010 spill. After it was lifted, the U.S. government began a slow process of approving the resumption of deepwater activities in the Gulf. It set out to make sure the drilling plans met strict new rules put in place after the BP spill.
Also Friday, a federal judge in New Orleans held a hearing to update lawyers on the status of the more than 500 lawsuits pending in the multidistrict litigation over the oil spill. A trial is scheduled for February to determine whether rig owner Transocean Ltd. can limit what it pays claimants under maritime law and to assign percentages of fault to Transocean and other companies involved in the disaster
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