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Shell is on track to start new deepwater drilling in Gulf of Mexico

March 21, 2011 |  6:49 pm

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday announced a step toward approval of the first new deepwater oil and gas exploratory drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico since the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The plan, submitted by Shell Offshore Inc., details how the company aims to meet more stringent safety requirements in its proposal to drill exploratory wells about 2,950 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 130 miles off the coast of Louisiana, Salazar said in a statement.

The area was originally leased to the company in 1985. “This exploration plan meets the new standards for environmental review and marks another important step toward safer deepwater exploration,” Salazar said.

Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said his agency found no evidence that Shell’s plans would significantly affect the quality of the “human environment.” As a result, the agency determined that an environmental impact statement was not required and issued a “finding of no significant impact,” a step toward final approval of the plan.

Although Shell’s exploration plan will lead to the first new wells in the gulf since the worst offshore oil disaster in American history, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has already approved a number of permits to resume activity in shallow and deep water. The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 workers and spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the gulf.

Facing growing pressure from the courts and Congress to speed up the approval process, the bureau has approved a permit for Houston-based Noble Energy to drill a so-called bypass well in 6,500 feet of water about 70 miles southeast of Venice, La.

The new well would track one started in April 2010 but plugged two months later, when the government established a moratorium on deep-water drilling in response to BP's well blowout. Noble's new drilling would go around the plugs to reach the oil.

--Louis Sahagun