Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says new drilling moratorium could have flexibility

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new order imposing a moratorium on deepwater drilling could be refined to reflect offshore conditions, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday.

Salazar has said he plans to issue a new drilling freeze after a federal judge struck down a previous ban on Tuesday. But Salazar told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday said the new ban "might be refined."

He said the order, which is still being developed, could include provisions to allow drilling in areas where reserves and risks are known rather than in exploratory reservoirs.

The new order is likely to include criteria for when the ban would be lifted, Salazar said, adding that more details will be made public in coming days.

"We're working out the specifics," he told reporters after the meeting.

A federal judge in New Orleans overturned the Obama administration's six-month ban on deepwater drilling in the wake of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion led to a massive spill that has spewed anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons of oil.

Judge Martin Feldman said the government simply assumed that because one rig exploded, others in the Gulf pose an imminent danger.

The Justice Department sought a delay for Feldman's ruling, arguing in court papers filed Wednesday night in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans that the public interest would be served by eliminating the risk of another drilling accident while new safety equipment standards and procedures are considered.

The Interior Department halted approval of any new permits for deepwater projects and suspended drilling on 33 exploratory wells.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Salazar she supported the moratorium and hopes he reimposes it as quickly as possible.

"The last 64 days have clearly demonstrated that the technology in use for deepwater drilling is not sufficient to prevent or stop environmental disasters," she said. Feinstein chairs the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., questioned how widespread the moratorium should be and how long it should last.

"I agree that the prudent thing to do, if you have a terrible plane crash, is to say, 'Whoa, let's stop. Let's see what happened to make sure it doesn't happen again.' But we don't stop 1.6 million people from flying every day after that for an indefinite period," Alexander said.

"As you think about a moratorium ... make sure that the economic consequences aren't more damaging than the environmental consequences of the oil spill," Alexander told Salazar.

Salazar said it was important that the moratorium stay in place until officials can assure that deepwater drilling can be done in a safe way.

"We're not there today," he said, but added that there is a difference drilling an exploratory well and drilling in areas where oil companies already have geophysical information and knowledge of the reservoir.

"So we're looking at all of those issues, and at a point in time when we can have assurance to the American people that we can move forward safely, we'll make whatever adjustments are appropriate," Salazar said.

Feinstein urged Salazar to be cautious.

"There are very powerful interests that want to proceed at all costs — and I don't think we should," she said.