The moratorium on wells below an arbitrary depth of 500 feet was imposed last May shortly after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 and spewing 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf before a months-long effort to cap the well finally succeeded.
The moratorium idled 33 deepwater rigs; five of them have since left for jobs off the African coast, a loss that can't be good for the U.S. energy picture. Gulf state politicians say the moratorium resulted in the loss - only temporarily, one hopes - of 8,000 to 12,000 jobs directly on the rigs and in the businesses that service them.
There were lots of contributing factors to the fatal explosion, including ill-advised short cuts and skipped procedures. But a prime cause was years of lax and spotty government enforcement of safety and environmental regulations. The idled Gulf workers and their companies are, in a sense, paying the price for the government's negligence.
However, the Department of Interior indicates that it will be weeks and more likely months before the first rigs are cleared to begin drilling. That's so the newly renamed Bureau of Energy Management can satisfy itself that the rigs and their crews are in compliance with tough new standards for well design and blowout preventers, emergency response and worker training.
The new standards may well be needed, but the Interior bureau complains that it does not have enough people to review the applications and process permits. This kind of delay is unacceptable. The department should hire outside engineering firms to augment its own staff if it has to.
No one wants their name on the permit of a well that explodes - housecleaning at the bureau followed the Deepwater Horizon explosion - but the department should ensure that its people are not slow-walking the paperwork out of an excess of caution. The industry complains that the department has issued only 12 permits for shallow-water wells since April when it normally issues that many a month.
The Gulf supplies around 30 percent of America's domestically produced oil. In our current energy configuration, the simple fact is we could not easily do without it - not for the foreseeable future.