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A federal stop-work order last month halted an offshore-drilling safety committee that included a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville research professor as its chairman, leading to sharp rebukes from environmental groups also critical of plans to expand offshore drilling.

But on Friday, the U.S. Department of Interior signaled plans to resume working on a safety study with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, although it's unknown if changes will be made to the original plan for the study.

Greg Parnell, a UA industrial engineering professor, is chairman of a National Academies committee originally asked to offer recommendations about safety inspections and remote monitoring of offshore drilling to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Interior. The group met once in October.

A bureau spokesman told The Washington Post last month that the study was paused because it may not be necessary and "appeared to be duplicative of ongoing work." Officials with the Sierra Club and Greenpeace environmental groups, in comments to The Associated Press, criticized the decision as showing a lack of concern about safety.

On Friday, the bureau issued a statement to the Democrat-Gazette that it "looks forward to re-engaging the National Academies in a meaningful way to avoid duplication and get a work product that has significant value to a safe Outer Continental Shelf." The statement said "re-engagement" would take place in mid-February.

"I think this is good news," Parnell said in an email Friday.

However, when asked if the original committee would be reconvened, the bureau's chief public affairs officer, Eileen Angelico, said, "I think it's too early to say either way."

The Interior Department agreed to pay $582,000 to the National Academies for the study, said Jennifer Walsh, the organization's's director of media relations.

In an email Friday, Walsh said the National Academies "have not received any update from DOI regarding the study, but we welcome the opportunity to resume our work."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier this month described a draft five-year plan to make over 90 percent of total outer continental shelf acreage open to consideration for future oil and gas exploration.

The department's announcement contrasted the plan with current drilling, describing 94 percent of the outer continental shelf as off limits. Environmental advocacy group Oceana was among several environmental groups to criticize the plan, in a statement calling it a "radical offshore drilling free-for-all" and noting opposition from governors of several states.

Oceana, in response to a question from the Democrat-Gazette, earlier this week criticized the decision to halt the National Academies study.

"One thing we should all be able to agree on is that safety is of paramount importance, so preventing a study like this simply flies in the face of common sense," Jacqueline Savitz, Ocean's senior vice president for U.S. oceans, said in a statement.

On Thursday, Parnell in a phone interview said the study is important because it relates to worker safety, the environment, and the fishing and tourism industries.

"Some people would view it as political or having political implications, but that wasn't our approach to it as a committee," Parnell said, adding that he would continue with the study if the stop-work order was lifted.

Parnell joined the UA faculty in 2013 and previously was a professor of systems engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The 13-person offshore-drilling safety committee includes scholars and leaders associated with Duke University, Canada's National Energy Board and the land conservation group The Wilderness Society, among others.

Metro on 01/20/2018

Print Headline: New life seen for offshore-drilling study

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