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Offshore drilling ban unlikely to be extended, official says

By the CNN Wire Staff
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The head of federal oil industry regulation says the drilling ban end date should hold
  • BP has suspended drilling on the relief well due to approaching severe weather
  • More than 5,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico have been reopened to fishing

Mobile, Alabama (CNN) -- The head of the government agency that regulates offshore drilling said Tuesday that it is "unlikely" a six-month moratorium on the practice will be extended.

"Obviously, we can't predict everything that we learn or everything that may happen in the outside world before then, but ... I see no information so far that would justify extending the moratorium," said Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management -- formerly the Minerals Management Service.

"[It's] not impossible but unlikely," he added.

Bromwich is hosting forums this week with federal, state and local leaders across the Gulf coast to gather input on deepwater drilling safety reforms, well containment and oil spill response. He is being briefed by panels of experts from academia, the environmental community, and the oil and gas industry so he can evaluate whether to recommend any modifications to the scope or duration of deepwater drilling suspensions announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on July 12.

Right now, drilling of any sort in the Gulf of Mexico is coming to a standstill. Drilling on the final 50 feet of a relief well expected to intercept BP's crippled oil well in the Gulf was suspended Tuesday because of a tropical disturbance in the region, officials said.

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The weather may delay the process by two to three days, according to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's national incident commander in the region.

Allen said that would push the interception date -- which had been expected Thursday or Friday -- to sometime between Sunday and next Tuesday, weather permitting, at which point crews could begin the "bottom kill" procedure to permanently cement the well.

The drilling apparatus is expected to remain on site because the weather was not projected to be very strong, Allen said.

Allen said that in preparation for the storm, crews had pulled the drill string out, put a plug known as a "packer" in the casing pipe and filled the riser with seawater so the pipe would be stable. He said that's an easily reversible process once the weather passes: Purge the seawater out, pull the packer out and reinsert the drill string to begin drilling again.

Strong thunderstorms and gusty winds are possible over the well site starting Wednesday, CNN meteorologist Sean Morris said.

Allen said scientists planned to conduct some pressure tests that they had been unable to perform before last week's "static kill" operation cemented the center of the well from above. He stressed that these new pressure tests were not instigated by any concerns about the well's current status, as recent pressure tests had shown the expected levels of well "integrity."

President Barack Obama, who has been under pressure to show a strong response to the spill, said he was committed to standing by communities along the Gulf Coast well beyond the final sealing of the well.

"What is clear is that the battle to stop the oil flowing into the Gulf is just about over. Our work goes on, though," he said in Washington.

The oil spill hasn't just hurt BP's bottom line -- it's inflicted heavy blows on Gulf Coast industries like tourism and fishing.

But there was some good news for commercial and recreational fishers Tuesday. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened 5,144 square miles of Gulf waters for finfish catching.

NOAA said that since July 3, its data have shown no oil in the area, and Coast Guard observers flying over the area in the past 30 days also have not observed any oil. In addition, NOAA said fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA experts have shown no signs of contamination.

The closed area now covers 52,395 miles, or 22 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf, down from 37 percent at its peak, NOAA said.

The well erupted after an April 20 explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon that left 11 men dead. A temporary cap contained the spill July 15, and nearly 3,000 barrels of heavy drilling mud and cement drove the oil back into the ocean floor last week.

The well gushed an estimated 53,000 barrels (2.3 million gallons) of oil per day before it was capped, with some of the oil ending up on beaches or in marshes. Fresh, green grass has begun growing again in some of the hardest-hit marshes of southern Louisiana, but oil continues to wash ashore in places.

CNN's Vivian Kuo, Eric Fiegel, Ed Lavandera and David Mattingly contributed to this report.

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