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US government introduces new offshore drilling regulations

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar [official profile] on Thursday announced new guidelines [press release] intended to increase the safety of offshore drilling. The Drilling Safety Rule addresses specifications for and oversight of flow control mechanisms and well bore integrity, while the Workplace Safety Rule [fact sheets, PDF] mandates the implementation of a Safety and Environmental Management System (SEMS) designed to identify and compensate for potential hazards. The former will become effective upon publication, after which a public comment period of 60 days will follow. The rule will then be either confirmed as final or republished in a revised form. Defenders of Wildlife [advocacy website] described [press release] the measures as a "positive step" toward more comprehensive reform. In his speech introducing the regulations, Salazar also indicated [Reuters report] that he is not yet prepared to rescind the previously issued six-month moratorium [JURIST report] on specific drilling techniques. The American Petroleum Institute [advocacy website] reserved its response to the new rules for the impending comment period, though reiterated its request [press release] that the government lift its ban, which primarily affects technologies used for deepshore drilling.

Last month, a federal judge denied [JURIST report] the government's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by several drilling companies challenging the latest offshore drilling moratorium. The ruling held that there were "no substantial changes" between the July 12 directive and its predecessor, issued on May 28, that the new moratorium did nothing to amend or prevent the wrongs found in the first and that the wrongful behavior alleged in the original order could reasonably be expected to occur as a result of the more recent iteration. The US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana [official website] rejected a request to reinstate [JURIST report] the May 28 ban in July, weeks after the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] similarly declined [JURIST report]. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] originally asked the appeals court to stay the preliminary injunction [JURIST report] in June, on the basis that another deepwater spill could overwhelm the ongoing efforts to clean up the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] with catastrophic results. Lawyers for the DOJ also claimed that the district judge abused his discretion in issuing the injunction. The Deepwater Horizon spill was a result of an oil well blowout that caused an explosion 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf. More than 120 million gallons of oil leaked from the rig's broken pipe, causing the spill to surpass the Exxon Valdez [JURIST news archive] as the worst oil spill in US history.

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