EU Suggests Deepwater Drilling Ban

BRUSSELS (AP) -- The European Union's top energy official on Wednesday suggested banning any new deep-water oil and gas exploration projects in the North Sea, Black Sea and the Mediterranean while regulators examine safety risks.

The U.S. banned offshore drilling in April in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill from a well operated by BP PLC -- and is now trying to maintain the six-month ban despite legal challenges.

Norway, Europe's biggest oil producer, has also banned new deep-water drilling in the North Sea. It is not a member of the 27-nation EU. Britain is the most important EU nation with offshore oil rigs -- but has so far made no plans to stop drilling.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told reporters after talks on Wednesday with 22 oil companies that "a moratorium of new drillings would be a good idea" while U.S. and EU regulators examine what caused the Gulf of Mexico accident.

Only European governments can decide a ban but Oettinger said he would call each of them and ask them to impose a temporary ban.

A time-out might also be in oil producers' economic interests, he said, because new rules and more technical standards would help restore trust in their tarnished reputations after the BP spill.

"Maybe new drillings are important for the future and the market but they are not urgent in this year," he said.

"The industry must triple check their practices, training programs and technologies. The companies will need to convince the regulators that they have checked and ... improved their safety culture," he said.

Oettinger also wants to tighten the way governments grant drilling permits for companies, demanding proof that they have the financial means to pay the costs of any potential spills. He said he will also lead an overhaul of EU safety rules and technical standards.

Michael Engell-Jensen of the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers told the same news conference that energy companies oppose a ban before it is clear what was behind the Gulf of Mexico accident and wanted regulators to keep processing drilling permits.

"We have not been able to find weaknesses that would cause us to halt operations," he said of companies operating in Europe.

Companies were aware that they faced sharper scrutiny from regulators and had to upgrade safety to "try to regain the public confidence that we accept we have lost," he said.

Oettinger acknowledged that the EU had little power of BP's plans to start drilling within weeks in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya.

"There is no international convention in place on oil platforms and safety at the moment," he said, calling for "European standards" for Mediterranean drilling.

BP has been battling sharp criticism over an April 20 explosion at a Gulf of Mexico drilling platform, which left 11 workers dead and millions of gallons of oil gushing into the sea.