The Obama administration is preparing to end the ban on deep-water oil and gas drilling imposed after the BP oil disaster in April, lifting it more than a month ahead of schedule.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is set to make the official announcement during a conference call at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
"There have been meetings on this in the last few days - suffice to say, I think we are getting close to having in place something that would likely allow us to lift the moratorium," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday.
The administration has been subject to constant political pressure from Gulf state lawmakers and oil and gas industry officials concerned about job losses attributed to the ban, which covers drilling along the outer continental shelf more than 1,000 feet down. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), for example, blocked President Barack Obama's nominee for the director of the Office of Management and Budget until drilling resumes.
The moratorium is currently scheduled to expire at the end of November.
Last month, the Interior Department unveiled a pair of new rules for offshore drillers, creating tougher equipment and technology standards - including requiring independent certification of a well's blowout preventer, a crucial piece of safety equipment that failed in the BP oil disaster. The rules also include new workplace standards aimed at reducing human and organizational errors, such as the ones believed to have played a role in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.
At the time, Salazar said he needed proof industry had reduced the risk of another BP-like oil spill before he delivered a final verdict on the moratorium. He also suggested that additional rules were on the way in the coming weeks and months, making it unclear how many steps remained before the deep-water ban was lifted.
"The oil and gas industry needs to expect a dynamic regulatory environment," Salazar said.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and triggered a massive oil spill, is widely considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The region also paid a heavy economic price during the spill: The disaster sidelined both fishermen and oil rig roughnecks and coated sensitive Louisiana marshlands and wildlife in crude oil, and the threat of tar-coated beaches nearly shut down summer tourism along the Gulf of Mexico.
The industry will be watching the details of the announcement - especially given oil industry complaints this summer that Interior officials were slow-walking drilling permits in shallow waters.
"What they've done is they've gotten rid of the political problem," of the deep-water-drilling ban, said Dan Kish, senior vice president at the industry-funded Institute for Energy Research.
Since the April 20 explosion, Kish said, Interior has issued shallow-water permits at a 10 percent clip of its previous rate over the past two years. "I don't know what business can run at 10 percent of what it normally does," Kish said.
Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, said Tuesday it would take at least four to six weeks before new deep-water-drilling permits are granted.
"It will take some time for companies to believe they have complied with the new rules and requirements," Bromwich told reporters, according to Fox News. "We will need to do inspections on all the platforms before we can allow those permits."
Bromwich said that officials understand "real and substantial pain has been inflicted on people, particularly in the Gulf region."
He added, "We're not going to be captive to industry. We're not going to just apply their recommendations verbatim."
Meanwhile, the investigations into the BP spill continue. The administration-created National Oil Spill Commission will meet Wednesday afternoon in Washington to discuss regulatory oversight and the future of offshore drilling.
Glenn Thrush contributed to this report.