New Sea Drilling Rule Planned, 5 Years After BP Oil Spill
APRIL 10, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is planning to impose a major new regulation on offshore oil and gas drilling to try to prevent the kind of explosions that caused the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, administration officials said Friday.
The announcement of the Interior Department regulation, which could be made as soon as Monday, is timed to coincide with the five-year anniversary of the disaster, which killed 11 men and sent millions of barrels of oil spewing into the gulf. The regulation is being introduced as the Obama administration is taking steps to open up vast new areas of federal waters off the southeast Atlantic Coast to drilling, a decision that has infuriated environmentalists.
The rule is expected to tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers, the industry-standard devices that are the last line of protection to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010, was caused in part when the buckling of a section of drill pipe led to the malfunction of a supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer on a BP well called Macondo.
It will be the third and biggest new drilling-equipment regulation put forth by the Obama administration in response to the disaster. In 2010, the Interior Department announced new regulations on drilling well casings, and in 2012, it announced new regulations on the cementing of wells.
The latest regulation, a result of several years of study, will be imposed on all future offshore drilling equipment and will be used by the administration to make the case that it can prevent a BP-like disaster as oil exploration expands in the Atlantic. The Interior Department is also reviewing a proposal from Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska.
“We’re coming on five years, and we’ve been working tirelessly in the regulation division since it happened,” said Allyson Anderson, associate director of strategic engagement in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. “We’ve doubled down on building a culture of safety,”
But environmentalists remained highly skeptical.
“Making sure the design, operation and maintenance of the blowout preventer is the best it can possibly be is imperative, no question,” said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author of the book “In Deep Water,” an investigation of the cause of the spill. “Industry and government have taken measures over the past five years to reduce some of the risk in what is an inherently dangerous operation at sea. That’s a far cry from saying it’s safe. And the last thing we need is to expose Atlantic or Arctic waters to a BP-style blowout.”
Environmentalists also noted that a panel appointed by President Obama to investigate the spill concluded that the chief cause of the disaster, which left the Gulf Coast soaked in black tar, was not the blowout preventer but a broad systemic failure of oversight by the companies involved in drilling the well and the government regulators assigned to police them.
Five years after the spill, the number of accidents and injuries per oil-producing well has increased, according to Interior Department statistics. Between 2009 and 2014, the overall number of oil- and gas-producing wells dropped about 20 percent, and accidents and incidents associated with drilling in the Gulf of Mexico dropped 14 percent. But during that period, accidents and injuries per producing well increased by about 7 percent.
A report last year by the Chemical Safety Board concluded that the blowout preventer’s blind shear ram, an emergency hydraulic device with two cutting blades, punctured the pipe and sent oil and gas gushing to the surface. The study found that the drill pipe had buckled under the tremendous pressure of the oil and gas rising from the well from the initial blowout.
That report warned that another disastrous offshore oil well blowout could happen despite regulatory improvements in the four years since the BP well explosion.
“The new regulation is important,” said William K. Reilly, a co-chairman of the presidential panel that investigated the spill, and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under the first President George Bush. “The signal from the department that it is attending to each of the systems is more important. The blowout preventer is the last-ditch preventer. It was activated too late in Macondo. If you get to the point where it’s all you’ve got, it better be good. But the system process we identified — attention to management, process design, adherence to the system — those are really vital long before you ever get to the point where you have an emergency.”
Mr. Reilly blamed Congress for some of the continued systemic problems, saying that lawmakers should have appropriated funds to increase programs for safety training and inspection.
Administration officials say that since the spill, the Interior Department has initiated the most aggressive and comprehensive offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in history. The agency has nearly doubled the number of safety inspectors in the Gulf of Mexico, from 55 at the time of the spill to 92 today. After the accident, the Interior Department was restructured, separating the agency charged with overseeing safety from the one charged with overseeing the collection of revenue.
The agency has also put in place a requirement that any company performing deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico must have access to containment dome technology — essentially, a dome that can be put over an exploded well to contain gushing oil. At least two ports in the Gulf of Mexico now store containment domes that can be used in emergencies.
While the oil industry typically opposes regulations, it has followed some of the recommendations made by the presidential panel. The big oil companies created and funded the Center for Offshore Safety, an institute intended to promote and disseminate best practices in drilling.
“The industry’s overall safety record was strong before Macondo, and the co-chairs of President Obama’s national spill commission were absolutely right when they said that offshore drilling is now even safer,” said Jack N. Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for the oil industry. “We will continue to build on these achievements because our goal is zero accidents and zero spills.”