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Feds: New Gulf waivers are for existing wells

Three environmental waivers granted by federal regulators this month were for modifying existing oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. officials told McClatchy.

The Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service issued the waivers _ which exempt oil and gas projects from detailed analysis of their environmental impacts _ to allow oil companies to conduct seismic activity, add generators and begin production on existing sites in the Gulf, according to an official who couldn't be named under department policy. None were for drilling new wells.

McClatchy reported Friday that the agency had granted the waivers since a June 2 order by its acting director, Bob Abbey, that oil companies must submit additional safety information before proceeding with drilling and exploration plans in the Gulf.

President Barack Obama has promised to end the waivers, saying he was "closing the loophole that has allowed some oil companies to bypass some critical environmental reviews." Yet Obama's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the wake of the BP disaster doesn't stop the MMS from granting waivers.

Department of Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said that the use of waivers was being reviewed as part of "reforms and recommendations that we expect will come from the presidential commission and other ongoing investigations" into U.S. drilling policy, but that no final decisions had been made.

Obama administration officials said they're also asking Congress to change a law that requires the MMS to review exploration plans within 30 days, so that there could be more time to conduct additional environmental analysis, if needed.

Environmental groups have sharply criticized the waivers, one of which was granted to BP for the well that's been spilling crude into the Gulf for the past two months. McClatchy has previously reported that the MMS granted waivers to dozens of oil companies whose Gulf exploration and production plans were near-carbon copies of BP's, and which minimized the risks of spills and environmental damage.

Of a total of five projects the MMS has approved in the Gulf since June 2, three were for sites where it has previously OK'd such drilling plans, according to the agency's public records. The companies working on those sites are Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Houston-based Rooster Petroleum.


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