The fog enshrouding the Bristow Group heliport at the mouth of the Mississippi River near Venice, Louisiana, grounding all flights to offshore Gulf of Mexico oil and gas operations this January day, is a typical pause to a changing of hands. Some 55 miles south, the Noble Amos Runner semisubmersible fourth-generation rig, under contract to LLOG Exploration Co. LLC, continued its mission of drilling out Who Dat Field in Mississippi Canyon 503. It is a two- to three-year program in 3,100 feet of water.

Who Dat came online at the end of 2011, and now has four wells producing 18,000 barrels of oil and 45 million cubic feet (MMcf) of gas per day. Randy Pick, LLOG managing director, acquisitions and divestitures, says, “A large-scale development project such as Who Dat requires a significant amount of rig time, and we have several prospects that could be as large as Who Dat.”

Such optimism pervades Gulf operators. Like a rising wave out of placid waters, projects are once again gaining momentum in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. The regulatory miasma that halted drilling in the basin following the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and subsequent Macondo well oil spill in 2010 is finally lifting. Visibility is clearing, and operators are eagerly resuming exploration and development plans.

Jud Bailey, senior managing director, head of oil services and equipment for investment research firm International Strategy & Investment Group LLC, believes the deepwater is poised for a boom.

“Essentially, after being left for dead following the devastating Macondo blowout, we believe the deepwater Gulf of Mexico is in the early stages of an extended growth cycle and is poised to be the strongest offshore market in the world through 2015,” he said in a December 2012 report on the Gulf.

Statoil, the international oil company based in Norway, is an example of a company riding the wave. It entered the deepwater basin as recently as 2005, and has identified the Gulf as a growth edge.

“It’s a combination of large reserves and attractive fiscal terms,” says Jason Nye, Statoil executive vice president of U.S. offshore. “The opportunities compare very favorably with anything else in our portfolio, which is why we’re spending money here.”

Did post-Macondo regulation changes affect Statoil’s long-term commitment? Not at all, he says. “There is still some uncertainty, and it’s still a moving target sometimes, but in general, we see it as a fairly stable environment. Things are coming back to normal.”

A wave of capital infusion illustrates operator confidence. Sugar Land, Texas-based research and consulting firm Quest Offshore Resources Inc. forecasts total spending in the Gulf to increase 30% in 2013, to $40 billion overall, and a cumulative $167 billion through 2016. For the first time ever, deepwater spending is expected to have outpaced shallow-water spending in 2012, led by a growing number of deepwater fields.

“2012 is expected to represent an investment shift with deepwater capex and opex spending surpassing that in shallow water,” according to the report released in late 2012. And the shift is expected to intensify over the next five to seven years, outpacing shallow-water spending two-to-one by 2016.

Total deepwater spending in 2016 is forecast at $27 billion. “Increased development activity levels are expected to drive robust deepwater spending in the Gulf of Mexico in the coming years,” the report said.

Noble Energy Inc. will contribute its share; it has multiple deepwater Gulf of Mexico prospects queued up. “The Gulf of Mexico is back in business,” says John Lewis, vice president of U.S. operations, southern region. “The opportunities are there, and I don’t see it slowing down.”