US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar [official profile] announced Monday that environmental reviews will be required [press release] for all new deepwater drilling, temporarily halting exemptions that allowed oil companies to drill without environmental impact statements. The process for exemptions was created under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) [materials] and required exemptions to be offered based on data provided by the companies seeking to drill. The announcement came after the White House Council on Environmental Quality [official website] reported that BP received an exemption [press release] based on outdated information for the Deepwater Horizon drilling site, which blew out in April leading to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive]. Salazar stated that the NEPA process for exemptions would be thoroughly reviewed and that the decision to allow drilling must be "fully informed by an understanding of the potential environmental consequences." Exemptions to the environmental review under NEPA will now be restricted to projects that involve "limited environmental risk." A six-month drilling moratorium [JURIST report] is currently limiting new drilling in the Gulf, and the restricted exemptions are expected to make approval for new deepwater drilling more difficult once the moratorium is lifted.
The Obama administration first announced a drilling moratorium [JURIST report] in May, suspending several offshore drilling activities including pending lease sales in the Gulf and Virginia and the drilling of 33 deepwater exploratory wells in the Gulf. In June, a federal judge ordered a preliminary injunction [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] against the original moratorium, stating that the blanket moratorium on drilling was too harsh and that the administration failed to consider less-restrictive alternatives. Last month, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] rejected a request [JURIST report] by the administration to stay the preliminary injunction. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] asked the appeals court to stay the injunction, claiming the district judge abused his discretion [JURIST report] and that another deepwater spill could overwhelm the ongoing efforts to clean up the spill with catastrophic results. The six-month drilling moratorium was issued in response to the court of appeals decision. More than 200 million gallons of oil leaked from the rig's broken pipe, surpassing the Exxon Valdez oil spill [JURIST news archive] as the worst in US history.