International drilling regulators examine lessons from Gulf spill

Offshore drilling regulators from a dozen countries today said the Deepwater Horizon disaster is shaking up government oversight of coastal oil and gas exploration far beyond the Gulf of Mexico.

Geoffrey Podger, chief of the United Kingdom’s health and safety executive, called the blowout of BP’s Macondo well a “seminal” event, like the 1988 explosion on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea that killed 167 people.

Podger made his observation at the start of a daylong Ministerial Forum on Offshore Drilling Containment at the U.S. Interior Department. Oil and gas regulators from 12 countries and the European Union are discussing lessons learned from the Macondo blowout — including the need for better well containment practices and equipment.

“The accident was a watershed for the oil industry,” said Hector Moreira Rodriguez, Mexico’s undersecretary of hydrocarbons, who has been meeting with U.S. officials to harmonize standards for drilling in the Gulf.

One of the biggest post-Macondo lessons, Rodriguez said was “the need for drilling and development plans to include design of emergency procedures” for countering blowouts.

Jan de Jong, the Netherlands’ inspector general of mines, stressed that “it is absolutely necessary to raise standards in industry.”

“This accident is not unique for deep-sea drilling in general, nor BP, nor for the Gulf of Mexico,” Jong said. “It could have happened anywhere.”

Norway’s top petroleum and energy minister, Per Rune Henriksen, said he was dismayed by “the inability to cap blowouts,” as evidenced by the Gulf spill that took 85 days to contain and the Montara blowout near Australia that leaked for 74 days before it was finally killed in November 2009.

Those crude-containment failures are “highly unsatisfactory,” Henriksen said. “This is an area where the industry must provide solutions.”

Industry and regulators in the U.S. are already responding. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is now requiring oil and gas companies to prove they have the equipment and resources to swiftly contain crude that would gush out of a blown-out well in deep water.

Two companies — Helix Energy Solutions and an Exxon Mobil-led consortium known as the Marine Well Containment Co. — have developed systems to cap and collect crude from leaking sub-sea wells.

The industry and BOEMRE also are now using new software developed with industry to model potential blowouts at proposed offshore wells. That modeling is helping to dictate what companies must be prepared to do to contain a well and respond to an oil spill in order to win offshore drilling permits.

Michael Bromwich, the BOEMRE director, said the software also is changing the way oil companies do business.

“This tool is helping to change the ways industry designs wells and conducts drilling,” Bromwich said. “Crisis has truly spurred innovation.”

One notable absence at today’s international drilling safety summit is Cuba, which has plans for at least five wells to be drilled off its coast this year. One of the companies that plans to drill in Cuba’s Gulf waters, Spain’s Repsol, has reached out to BOEMRE, but there is no U.S.-Cuba accord to ensure a single set of best drilling practices in the Gulf of Mexico.

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About The Author

Jennifer A. Dlouhy covers energy policy, politics and other issues for The Houston Chronicle and other Hearst Newspapers from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on legal affairs for Congressional Quarterly. She also has worked at The Beaumont Enterprise, The San Antonio Express-News and other newspapers. Jennifer enjoys cooking, gardening and hiking. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and toddler son.