WASHINGTON — Rebuffed by the courts, the Obama administration is trying again to freeze new oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, this time saying such drilling poses an imminent threat of "irreparable damage to the marine, coastal, and human environment."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the new freeze Monday, saying it would be effective until at least Nov. 30. He said he has new information since he first tried to suspend new drilling — a suspension thrown out by a federal court.
Salazar said the government learned, for example, that close examinations revealed problems in blowout preventers on the relief wells being drilled by BP to cap its leaking oil well in the Gulf. Those problems had to be repaired before the work could continue on the relief wells, which could reach the leaking well by mid-August and allow BP to seal it off permanently.
Also, Salazar said the government now needs assurances from oil drillers in the Gulf that they would have enough equipment to deal with any new spill — knowing that most such equipment is already being used to clean up the spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon well.
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"More than eighty days into the BP oil spill, a pause on deepwater drilling is essential and appropriate to protect communities, coasts, and wildlife from the risks that deepwater drilling currently pose," Salazar said in a statement.
"I am basing my decision on evidence that grows every day of the industry's inability in the deepwater to contain a catastrophic blowout, respond to an oil spill, and to operate safely."
An Interior Department memo said the decision was "supported by an extensive record of existing and new information indicating that allowing new deepwater drilling to commence would pose a threat of serious, irreparable, or immediate harm or damage to the marine, coastal, and human environment."
After the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater rig produced the country's worst oil spill, Salazar on May 28 ordered a freeze on new drilling at 33 rigs in the Gulf of Mexico until at least Nov. 30. Those 33 rigs were operating in 500 feet or more of the Gulf.
The new freeze will apply to an undetermined number of rigs based "drilling configurations and technologies." The depth is not mentioned in Monday's suspension.
Oil drillers and Gulf Coast politicians complained that the earlier moratorium would drive companies to send the portable rigs to other parts of the world, drying up jobs. A U.S. District Court judge on June 22 threw out the government moratorium. An appeals court last week refused to order it reinstated pending a full appeal.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., ripped the new policy and urged a presidential commission studying the Deepwater oil spill to recommend lifting the ban.
"Whether you call it a moratorium, a suspension, or a pause, the result will still be a substantial loss of jobs," she said. "Even the revised moratorium will force thousands of hard-working Louisianians and others along the Gulf Coast into the unemployment lines."
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., called the policy a job killer for Gulf States.
"The Gulf region is already suffering both economically and environmentally from the effects of this disastrous oil spill," said price, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. "Taking jobs away from Gulf state residents in the energy sector will only compound the economic devastation."
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