The six-month ban had been scheduled to expire November 30, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today he was moving up that deadline because new rules imposed after the spill have strengthened safety measures and reduced the risk of another catastrophic blowout.
"The policy position that we are articulating today is that we are open for business," Salazar told a news conference.
The action comes as a deadline passed for a federal judge to rule on a lawsuit seeking to overturn the moratorium.
It also comes less than a month before congressional elections in which Democrats face widespread criticism for overextending government actions on the economy, including the health care overhaul, the economic stimulus plan and the drilling moratorium.
A federal report said the moratorium likely caused a temporary loss of 8,000 to 12,000 jobs in the Gulf region.
While the temporary ban on exploratory oil and gas drilling is lifted immediately, drilling is unlikely to resume for at least a few weeks.
Drilling companies must meet a host of new safety regulations before they can resume operations including a requirement that the chief executive of the company responsible for the well certifies it has complied with all regulations. That could make the person at the top of the company liable for any future accidents.
"Operators who play by the rules and clear the higher bar can be allowed to resume," Salazar said.
The secretary said he knows that some people in the oil industry and along the Gulf Coast will say the new rules are too onerous.
"Others will say that we are lifting the deep water drilling suspension too soon. They will say there are still risks involved with deep water drilling," he said.
The truth is, there will always be risks involved with deep water drilling, Salazar said. "As we transition to a clean energy economy," he added, "we will still need oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico to power our homes, our cars, our industry."
The new rules imposed by the administration will make oil and gas drilling in the Gulf "safer than it has ever been," Salazar said.
Rep Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Gulf state Louisiana, called the end of the drilling ban great news for the state's economy and workers.