Second permit granted for drilling activity banned after oil spill


The U.S. government has granted a second permit for deepwater drilling activity that was banned after last spring’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement approved the permit Friday evening for BHP Billiton, an Australian company, to resume drilling a well in Green Canyon Block 653, said agency spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz.

BHP began drilling the new well Feb. 16, 2010, but had to stop when BP’s Macondo well blew and the industry came to a forced halt.

The well is in about 4,200 feet of water in the Shenzi oil field, about 150 miles south of Houma.

The approval fits in with recent promises by top offshore regulator Michael Bromwich that the Feb. 28 approval of a Noble Energy well would be the first of several in the coming weeks.

Like the Noble permit, the BHP permit approval was predicated on its use of a new well capping device provided by the Helix Well Containment Group, a spill-response effort by a consortium of independent oil companies. Schwartz said BHP would use the Helix capping stack to contain any blowouts that might occur.

While the government said it was waiting on sufficient spill response plans, the industry and its political supporters have been complaining about the slow pace of permitting since President Obama’s deepwater drilling moratorium was officially lifted last October. It took nearly five months for the first two permits to be granted.

While many cheered Noble’s permit last month, the local responses were tempered by a sense in the industry that many more permits would be necessary to truly protect offshore jobs.

BHP’s well appears to have the markings of a relatively lower-risk project. It is in shallower water than BP’s Macondo well, which sat more than 5,000 feet below the surface. It is also within reach of Helix’s system for collecting excess oil and bringing it to the surface, if that’s ever necessary.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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