The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), the federal agency, which oversees U.S. offshore drilling, has allowed Shell Offshore Inc. and 12 other oil and gas companies to resume deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico without the need to submit revised exploration or development plans for supplemental National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews.

The BOEMRE said it had notified 13 companies whose deepwater drilling projects were suspended in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that they may be able to resume previously-approved operations without having to provide revised exploration or development plans for additional NEPA reviews.

The deepwater drilling activities were suspended last year following the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

However, the companies must comply with BOEMRE's new policies and regulations before resuming those activities.

In addition to Shell, the other companies that received notice from the federal agency are: ATP Oil & Gas Corp., BHP Billiton Petroleum Inc., Chevron USA Inc., Cobalt International Energy, ENI U.S. Operating Co. Inc., Hess Corp., Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Corp., Marathon Oil Co., Murphy Exploration & Production Co. USA, Noble Energy Inc., Statoil USA E&P Inc. and Walter Oil & Gas Corp.

The White House has lifted its ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico more than two months ago but oil companies are still trying to gain approval to drill new oil wells in the region.

We are taking into account the special circumstances of those companies whose operations were interrupted by the moratorium and ensuring that they are able to resume previously-approved activities, said Michael R. Bromwich, director of the agency.

For those companies that were in the midst of operations at the time of the deepwater suspensions, today's notification is a significant step toward resuming their permitted activity, Bromwich said.

These companies will not have to revise a previously submitted exploration plan or development operations coordination document as long as the worst-case discharge estimated for the project is less than the worst-case discharge estimate included by the company in its oil spill response plan, BOEMRE said.

However, if the worst-case discharge exceeds the its response plan, further reviews will be conducted.

In December 2010, the BOEMRE had issued additional guidance regarding the steps required of operators to resume deepwater activity.

The new guidance document gave new safety regulations for offshore drilling to help the oil and gas industry comply with the rules, which apply to oil spill response plans, calculations for worst-case discharge and blowout preventer testing.

The document, which contained no new regulations, detailed what should go into an oil spill response plan and how the bureau intended to evaluate it.

The agency noted that many proposed oil spill response plans did not include sufficient subsea containment equipment and specified that operators would need to show proof that they had the resources to deal with an underwater blowout and a plan for removing debris from the site and containing offshore surface oil, among other things.

The issues addressed in the information document include compliance issues relating to: the Drilling Safety Rule including Worst Case Discharge calculations as well as further information on BOEMRE’s inspections of BOP testing, Oil Spill Response Plans (OSRP), and the manner in which environmental assessments will be conducted for deepwater drilling plans.

Following discussions with members of the oil and gas industry, it is clear that this information will assist in their implementation of the stronger safety and environmental standards we have put in place, Bromwich said.

BOEMRE also said that it will hold a series of public scoping meetings in February 2011 on the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program.