New offshore drilling rules hinge on Deepwater Horizon probe

The government is about to kick-start a long process for setting new offshore drilling safety standards — but only after a joint federal investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster is complete, a top Obama administration official told the Houston Chronicle.

At issue is the joint Coast Guard and Interior Department probe of the oil spill. Although the joint investigation team held its final public hearings in April, the panel has not yet issued its conclusions about the root causes of the disaster.

That final report is set to be released “in the very near future,” said Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

The document is expected to identify failures at BP’s doomed Macondo well that may have contributed to its lethal blowout on April 20 last year and the resulting oil spill.

The panel’s report may provide the foundation for bolstering mandates on the blowout preventers used as a last line of defense against unexpected surges of oil and gas at wells. The joint investigation team’s conclusions about well design also could spur regulatory changes.

“Even though it is going to be a very broad rulemaking process and there will be plenty of time to get input, we thought we would be better served by seeing where the JIT came out on a variety of issues before we (began),” Bromwich said. “We have quite explicitly been waiting for the conclusion of the JIT process and the release of the JIT report before we go out with the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.”

That advanced notice will kick off a long process of creating the new drilling safety regulation. Bromwich has stressed that the slower timetable will allow more people to weigh in on the measure’s content.

Although the ocean energy bureau director declined to give a specific time frame, he said he anticipated the rulemaking would begin “reasonably soon after the issuance of the report.”

Bromwich has previously said the rule will be “focused on all dimensions of drilling safety.”

It almost certainly will include proposed new standards for blowout preventers, the design of offshore wells and cement barriers at the sites.

The measure also is likely to make adjustments to a drilling safety rule that was imposed last October. The ocean energy bureau has clarified some requirements of that rule already, in response to oil and gas companies that complained it set some confusing and conflicting standards.