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Washington • BP won approval from the Interior Department to drill its first exploratory oil well in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion touched off the country's worst offshore environmental disaster.
The new well will be much farther out to sea and in deeper water than BP's Macondo well, which exploded in April 2010, killed 11 workers and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean over several months.
In approving the drill permit, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said that BP met more stringent safety requirements devised by the federal government in the aftermath of the Deepwater disaster. The company also planned to follow even tougher voluntary standards that exceeded the government's rules.
"This permit was approved only after thorough well design, blowout preventer and containment capability reviews," said bureau Director Michael Bromwich.
At a depth of more than 6,000 feet, the proposed well is part of the company's Kaskida oil and gas development drilling area in the Keathley Canyon located about 250 miles south of Lafayette, La.
Environmentalists have said that the new regulatory agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, is better than its predecessor, the Minerals Management Service, which had exercised uneven, sometimes lax oversight of offshore energy projects, investigations showed.
But some argue it is still too early to issue BP a permit. Athan Manuel, director of lands protection at the Sierra Club, said BP's new equipment might not compensate for the complacent corporate culture that independent investigators have said led to a series of poor decisions that set the stage for the blowout.
BP said in a statement: "After several months of hard work developing and implementing our new drilling standards ... we are pleased to have received a permit to drill another appraisal well in the Kaskida Field. This fourth deep-water permit is another milestone in our steady return to safely drilling in the Gulf of Mexico."
Other environmentalists argue that the technological changes have not gone far enough to justify any new drilling permits. BP, for instance, plans to use blowout preventers on certain drilling rigs that have double blind shear rams, which cut off and seal drill pipes in the event of a well blowout. The company, however, points out that the Deepwater Horizon rig had a single blind shear ram.
David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it remained unclear if double blind shear rams would have stemmed the Macondo blowout. A joint investigation by the Coast Guard and Interior Department found that the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer failed mainly because a section of drill pipe bent and fell outside the blades of the shear ram.
"There have been advances," Pettit said, "but I don't know if they're advanced enough to ensure that they would protect us against what happened in April 2010."