U.S. drilling ban "unlikely" to be extended: official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is unlikely to extend its six-month ban on deepwater drilling because of the progress the industry has shown since the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April, an Interior Department official said on Tuesday.

Michael Bromwich, head of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said he has been impressed with strides the oil and gas industry has made on spill response and containment since the drilling ban was imposed.

“I think we’re in a quite different place,” Bromwich told reporters on a conference call. “I think it is highly unlikely the moratorium will be extended beyond November 30.”

Bromwich also said his report offering recommendations on possibly lifting the moratorium would be completed by the end of September, a month ahead of the deadline set by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Oil companies and Gulf state lawmakers have pressured the Obama administration to end the moratorium on exploratory drilling at depths more than 500 feet, imposed after the April 20 BP rig accident that spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months.

It was unclear how soon Salazar will act after Bromwich’s report is submitted. It may take the secretary a few days or a couple of weeks to decide on the ban, Bromwich said.

Bromwich also disputed a statement from a group of drillers on Monday that the industry had reached an “impasse” with the department over permitting for new shallow water wells.

He said he was looking into temporarily bringing in workers from other regional officers to help expedite the permitting process in the Gulf.

“We’ve been proceeding as quickly as we responsibly can,” Bromwich said. “We’re not going to speed up for the sake of speeding up and we’re certainly not going to cut corners.”

Shallow water drillers have complained that delays in permitting new wells amount to a de facto ban even in waters less than 500 feet deep.

The coalition said it was working to quickly provide Bromwich with its proposal to tier the permitting process based on the risks associated with projects.

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by David Gregorio