Houston spill conference: We've been here before

Think this past year has been lousy for the offshore oil and gas drilling industry? The years 1969  and 1970 were pretty rough, too.

In that stretch the industry suffered three major blowouts: the Jan. 29, 1969 Union Oil platform accident off Santa Barbara, Calif., the Feb. 10, 1970  spill at an unmanned Chevron platform at Main Pass Block 41 and the Dec. 1, 1970 Bay Marchand accident that killed four and seriously wounded others.

And if you think the federal reaction to the Deepwater Horizon spill has been tough, the reaction in 1969 and 1970s wasn’t exactly weak, according to Jason Theriot, a University of Houston doctoral candidate in history. He helped kick of the University’s day long Oil Spill Symposium this morning.

Secretary of the Department of the Interior Walter J. Hickel halted planned lease sales in the Gulf and issued new regulations, Theriot said. That included more well casing, cementing and testing requirements, additional blowout prevention devices and weekly blowout prevention tests (sound familiar?), procedures for disposing waste and pollution control, standby pollution control equipment, such as booms, more inspections, and new requirements for overall safety practices.

Louisiana also issued new antipollution rules in the state’s coastal and offshore waters focused on negligent or willful discharging of oil into offshore waters. The new law also empowered the Louisiana Department of Conservation to suspend drilling or producing operations in case of significant spills.

The actions taken against Chevron? The DOI halted all production on Chevron’s 22 platforms in the Main Pass area, pending a thorough platform-by-platform safety inspection, Theriot says. Inspectors soon discovered that most of Chevron’s wells did not have the required “storm chokes” installed.

Joe Pratt, a professor of history at UH, said the Deepwater Horizon accident is just part of a pattern.
“We have a bad spill every 10 to 20 years that gets the world’s attention. We pass reforms, but the reforms are aimed at fixing the past spill,” he said. “We prepare, we yell at each other, meetings are held, time starts to pass.”
The plans that come out of the spill decay over time until the next accident, and they’re found again to be inadequate.
“We don’t need to repeat that cycle every time,” Pratt said. “We know enough that the big spills will continue is be continue to use oil at the same level we do. Complacency is the enemy.”

The symposium continues through the afternoon, with other speakers including Bob Nicholas, former general counsel for Exxon Shipping on the 1990 spill control act,  officials from Texas and Louisiana spill control offices; and John English, an energy and environmental attorney with Baker and Hostetler.