The U.S. Department of Interior on Thursday issued new safety regulations designed to cut the risk of oil and natural gas explosions during offshore drilling operations.
The new “well control” guidelines, spurred by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people, will bolster design, manufacture, repair and maintenance requirements for oil well blowout preventers, or BOPs. That’s the same device that didn’t function properly on the BP Horizon rig, leading to the worst maritime oil spill in U.S. history.
In a 2014 report, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found that the cutting blades on the Horizon’s blowout preventer – which seals oil and gas wells in emergencies – had failed to completely sever an off-center steel drill pipe.
That allowed the pipe to remain a conduit for oil and gas that spewed to the surface, leading to an explosion on the rig and triggering an 87-day spill that released an estimated four million barrels of oil and gas.
Along with 11 who died, 17 others suffered serious injuries and 115 people were evacuated from the rig, which sank roughly 50 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
The wide-ranging and comprehensive guidelines require BOP systems to feature technology that allows the drill pipe to be centered when the blowout preventer’s cutting blades are in use. The preventers also must now have two sets of cutting blades to make sure they can cut through the drill pipe.
The rules also require closer monitoring of procedures for deep water, high-temperature and high-pressure drilling as well as for high-risk operations in shallow water.
“We listened extensively to industry and other stakeholders and heard their concerns loud and clear – about drilling margins, blowout preventer inspections, accumulator capacity, and real-time monitoring,” said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider in a statement. “This rule includes both prescriptive and performance-based standards that are based on this extensive engagement and analysis.”
Just one day before the Obama administration announced the new regulations, the hazard investigation board issued a damning draft report that found a “culture of minimal regulatory compliance continues to exist in the Gulf of Mexico and risk reduction continues to prove elusive.”
The board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, said that the government hasn’t done enough to make sure the drilling industry is taking steps to ensure safety.
“Offshore regulatory changes made thus far do not do enough to place the onus on industry to reduce risk, nor do they sufficiently empower the regulator to proactively oversee industry’s efforts to prevent another disaster like the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill,” the draft report said.
Hillary Cohen, communications manager at the investigation board, could not comment on the new regulations Thursday evening.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Bradenton, a longtime opponent of offshore drilling near Florida’s coast, praised the new rules.
“Florida’s coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy ocean and we shouldn’t jeopardize the state’s economy or environment by gambling on operations that lack adequate safeguards,” Buchanan said in a statement.
In 2011, Buchanan voted against opening Florida’s coast to drilling and sponsored a bill that would ban Cuba from drilling for oil within 50 miles of Florida’s coast.
“The legacy of the tragic Deepwater Horizon disaster is that safety, rigorous oversight and extreme caution should be exercised in building these deep-water rigs,”
But Glenn Compton, president of ManaSota88, an environmental group in the Bradenton area, said he was amazed that it took six years to finalize the regulations – which he cautioned, are only as good as their enforcement.
“New rules are better than nothing,” Compton said. “But a better solution would be to look elsewhere for oil than the Gulf of Mexico.”
Compton said there already are too many wells in the Gulf that the Department of Interior cannot adequately monitor. He also said neither the federal government nor the oil industry has demonstrated that technology exists to prevent a major oil spill when a blowout occurs up to five miles under water.
“It’s incredible that they think they can drill at that depth and correct any mistakes that can happen,” Compton said.
Seventeen percent of crude oil produced in the United States comes from federal offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. And nearly half of the nation’s oil-refining capacity is based along the Gulf coast, making it a powerful economic force in the region.
Despite low oil prices, the Obama administration expects Gulf oil production to average more than 1.6 million barrels per day in 2016 and reach a record high of nearly 1.8 million per day in 2017.
Daily output in the Gulf could top 1.9 million barrels per day in December 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.