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Offshore moratorium won't affect Gulf wells already producing oil

WASHINGTON — The extension of a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will not affect 591 deepwater wells that are already producing oil and gas, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday, nor will it affect the operations of 4,515 producing wells in relatively shallow waters.

However, the moratorium will stop work at 33 offshore drilling rigs that are prospecting for petroleum in water deeper than 500 feet. Operators of those exploratory deepwater rigs will be ordered to stop their operations as soon as they arrive at a safe point to secure their wells, Salazar said.

There is no moratorium on exploration in waters shallower than 500 feet. However, they must meet additional safety requirements and inspections before proceeding.

The moratorium, initially for 30 days, was extended for six months as a result of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horzion offshore drilling rig and the oil spill that has spewed millions of gallons of oil each day into the gulf since.

Salazar said that once the moratorium has passed, offshore drilling will require certification of all blowout preventers, stronger procedures for keeping wells under control, a tougher inspection process, and expanded safety and training requirements for rig workers.

“These actions are all guided by the need to take a cautious approach to offshore oil and gas development as we strengthen safety and oversight of offshore oil and gas operations,” Salazar said. “Some of these measures we can implement immediately, others will take some time.”

As for future leasing in the Gulf of Mexico , Salazar said much depends on what a presidential commission concludes in the coming months.

Salazar acknoweldged that the Obama administration had been operating under "a mistaken assumption" when it called for more offshore drilling in March.

“The assumption I had made in putting together that plan was that these activities could move forward in a safe way,” he said. “That assumption is obviously an assumption that was mistaken, given the evidence we have seen from the Deepwater Horizon, and that is why the decision to put the pause button on deepwater exploration until these safety evaluations can be made is absolutely the right decision.”

Asked whether he was confident that he had the right structure and people in place at the Minerals Management Service, the agency that oversees offshore drilling, to move forward, Salazar said “no.”

“We need to do significantly more work to create a more robust agency if we are going to develop the vast energy resources we have in the outer continental shelf, and that’s both with respect to conventional and renewable energy,” Salazar said. “We will be putting people in place to help run the functions of the new configured agency that will have the capability of making sure that we are protecting the people of the United States and the environment at the same time making sure that the development of oil and gas resources can be done in a safe way.”

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