BP implements voluntary safety standards for Gulf drilling *updated*

BP today vowed today it would take new steps to safeguard all of its deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as part of a bid to reassure federal regulators the company can prevent a repeat of the lethal blowout at its Macondo well last year.

The London-based oil giant said it was voluntarily implementing the safety changes, which go beyond drilling requirements the federal government imposed in the wake of last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP also has to meet the new federal requirements for any oil and gas operations in U.S. waters.

In a release announcing the move, BP said the voluntary performance standards “reflect the company’s determination to apply lessons it learned from the Deepwater Horizon accident and subsequent oil spill.”

The planned new safeguards include using a second set of pipe-cutting shear rams on equipment known as blowout preventers, to double the opportunities for those devices to successfully shear off drill pipe and seal a subsea well in case of an emergency.

Bob Dudley, BP group chief executive said the company was committed “to apply what we have learned to improve the way we operate.”

“We believe the commitments we have outlined today will promote greater levels of safety and preparedness in deep-water drilling,” Dudley added.

Although BP is a financial partner in several offshore oil and gas projects launched since last year’s spill, the company has not received the U.S. government’s permission to take the lead role operating any new wells.

BP made the overture in a letter to federal regulators at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which oversees oil and gas development in federal waters. BP made clear that its new voluntary standards should be viewed as having the force of requirements, which the agency could enforce for any of the company’s future drilling in the Gulf:

“These voluntary performance standards, as applicable, will become conditions of operation, fully enforceable by BOEMRE, upon the approval by BOEMRE of any proposed plan or drilling permit application submitted by BP.”

Bureau officials have said there is no agreement with BP to allow the company to resume offshore drilling. The agency director, Michael Bromwich, also stressed that applications for permits to drill are reviewed individually on the merits of those proposals.

“We have established strong new safety and environmental standards that all operators are required to meet in order to operate on the outer continental shelf,” Bromwich said in a statement today. “We welcome additional safety steps and best practices that companies may decide to implement that are in addition to the requirements that are applied across the board.”

Other oil companies also take safety steps above and beyond what is required in federal regulations. For instance, Shell has pledged to use a second set of shear rams on any blowout preventers safeguarding its proposed drilling in Arctic waters near Alaska. Bromwich said he welcomed the move from any company operating offshore but stressed that BP’s drilling proposals still will be judged individually.

“We’ve been clear that each and every operator that applies for permits or that submits plans will be treated in the exact same way, so all our enhanced standards will apply to each and every BP application,” Bromwich said. “And now BP has said it is signing up to do these voluntary standards that will have the force — their letter says — of requirements, so I think that is a substantial step.”

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said BP’s move shows that its voluntary changes are “technologically feasible” for oil companies and should be adopted industry-wide. At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing this morning, Markey pressed Bromwich to impose similar requirements on all oil and gas companies operating offshore.

Bromwich stressed that some of BP’s voluntary steps could be included in new rules the ocean energy bureau is preparing to propose. But he noted that the rulemaking process will take time.

BP’s new voluntary steps, which the company is limiting to the Gulf of Mexico, “may be among the additional reforms that we embrace,” Bromwich said. “These are definitely on the table for our consideration down the road,”

But Bromwich added: “We want to consider that carefully. We’ve certainly heard the voice of industry that if we change the regulations too much and too often (that creates an unsettled environment).”

In addition to strengthening its blowout preventers, BP also pledged to have engineers witness all laboratory testing of the cement slurries used as barriers at its deep-water wells. BP said it would also make those test results available to BOEMRE officials. The change responds to criticism about the cement mixture applied at BP’s failed Macondo well, which failed early stability tests.

BP also said it would beef up its oil spill response plan with new information about how the company would tackle a spill in open water, near coasts and at the shoreline.

BP’s move aims to convince federal regulators and the public that the company has made changes since last year’s oil spill that would boost safety at any yet-to-be-approved offshore projects in the Gulf.

“BP is adopting these voluntary actions as part of its commitment to safe and reliable operations and to help rebuild trust in the company following last year’s accident and oil spill,” said James Dupree, BP’s regional president for the Gulf of Mexico.

Bromwich acknowledged BP’s goals today. “BP has clearly been through a lot,” he told the natural resources panel. “They clearly understand they have to win back not only the regulators’ confidence but the public’s confidence as well.”

But Bromwich rejected any notion that the company’s move boiled down to a PR stunt.

“They are looking for ways to demonstrate that they’ve learned the lessons of Deepwater Horizon (and that) they are determined to reform the company so it becomes characterized by more of a safety culture than they apparently had in the past,” Bromwich added. “So it’s clear that the chief motivation for doing this is to win the confidence of a broad range of people, including us, and to get back to work.”

The presidential commission that investigated last year’s oil spill said the Deepwater Horizon disaster was evidence of “systemic” industry-wide problems but also faulted BP for making decisions that boosted risks at the Macondo well. The April 20, 2010 Macondo well blowout triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the nation’s worst oil spill.