|Drilling companies must meet a host of new safety regulations before they can resume operations [AFP]
The administration of Barack Obama, the US president, has lifted the moratorium on deep water drilling that it imposed in the wake of the disastrous BP oil spill, that dumped millions of litres of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
The six-month ban had been scheduled to expire on November 30, but Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, said on Tuesday he was moving up that deadline because new rules imposed after the spill have strengthened safety measures and reduced the risk of another catastrophic blowout.
"The policy position that we are articulating today is that we are open for business," Salazar told a news conference.
The action comes as a deadline passed for a federal judge to rule on a lawsuit seeking to overturn the moratorium.
It also comes less than a month before congressional elections in which Democrats face widespread criticism for over extending government actions on the economy, including the health care overhaul, the economic stimulus plan and the drilling moratorium.
A federal report said the moratorium likely caused a temporary loss of 8,000 to 12,000 jobs in the Gulf region.
While the temporary ban on exploratory oil and gas drilling is lifted immediately, drilling is unlikely to resume for at least a few weeks.
Drilling companies must meet a host of new safety regulations before they can resume operations, including a requirement that the chief executive of the company responsible for the well certifies it has complied with all regulations.
That could make the person at the top of the company liable for any future accidents.
"Operators who play by the rules and clear the higher bar can be allowed to resume," Salazar said.
The secretary said he knows that some people in the oil industry and along the Gulf Coast will say the new rules are too onerous.
"Others will say that we are lifting the deep water drilling suspension too soon. They will say there are still risks involved with deep water drilling," he said.
The truth is, there will always be risks involved with deep water drilling, Salazar said. "As we transition to a clean energy economy," he added, "we will still need oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico to power our homes, our cars, our industry."
'Safer than before'
The new rules imposed by the administration will make oil and gas drilling in the Gulf "safer than it has ever been," Salazar said.
Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Gulf state Louisiana, called the end of the drilling ban great news for the state's economy and workers.
The April 20 spill, which was triggered by an explosion that killed 11 people, dumped an estimated 757 million litres (200 million gallons) of oil in the Gulf.
BP killed the well last month and expects to eventually pay at least $32bn to handle the clean-up and damage claims.
Under the new rules, a professional engineer must independently inspect and certify each stage of the drilling process.
Blowout preventers - the emergency cutoff equipment designed to contain a major spill - must be independently certified and capable of severing the drill pipe under severe pressure.
Companies also will be required to develop comprehensive plans to manage risks and improve workplace safety.