Environmentalists: Offshore drilling still too risky, despite new rules

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Matthew Tresaugue

The government imposed new regulations and requirements designed to make offshore drilling safer in the wake of last year’s oil spill, but the risks of another Deepwater Horizon disaster are still too high, environmentalists concluded Friday.

According to an analysis by the advocacy group Oceana, the new regulations don’t go far enough — and would not have stopped last year’s oil spill, even if they had been in place April 19, 2010 — a day before the lethal blowout of BP’s Macondo well.

“When you compare the new rules to the things that went wrong on the BP rig, it’s obvious that those same problems could go terribly wrong again, in spite of the so-called safety rules,” said Oceana senior campaign director and senior scientist Jacqueline Savitz. “The chance of a devastating spill is just as high as a year and a half ago.”

Savitz called on the Obama administration’s Interior Department to stop issuing new offshore drilling permits since they “can’t assure safety” and “that’s the only way to prevent new oil spills.”

Oceana unveiled its 32-page report analyzing offshore drilling regulations this morning, during a Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Miami, Fla.

Speaking at the same event on Wednesday night, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stressed the government’s “oil and gas reforms” since the 2010 spill.

“We must not forget the lessons of Deepwater Horizon,” he said. “We must press forward with our oil and gas reforms. We must keep our commitment to Gulf Coast restoration and reinvest the penalties where they belong.”

Specifically, Oceana flagged possible problems with the blowout preventers that are used as last-ditch emergency blockades against uncontrolled surges of oil and gas from wells. A government-led probe of the blowout preventer used to secure the Macondo well concluded in March that powerful blind shear rams on the device were unable to completely slash through slightly off-center drill pipe, seal the well hole and trap oil and gas underground.

Ocean said the finding raises troubling questions about the standard design of blowout preventers that still haven’t been addressed by the federal government.

Officials at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement have said they soon will propose new offshore drilling requirements — likely including new mandates for blowout preventers. But it could take a year or two for the new requirements to go from proposal to being an enforceable regulation.

Oceana also concluded that current offshore inspection programs are “woefully inadequate.” The government is conducting more inspections now, but the cash-strapped drilling agencies still are unable to conduct “strong oversight of the tens of thousands of wells in the water,” Oceana said. “The Deepwater Horizon incident highlights an urgent need for oversight of critical operations in real time — as they are occurring — even when rigs have previously been inspected for safety.”

Although the environmental group focused on federal regulators, it also faulted the oil and gas industry for not doing more to improve its safety culture in the wake of the spill. As evidence, Oceana points to industry leaders’ oft-repeated push for speedier permitting of offshore drilling projects. That, Oceana says, underscores the industry’s “business as usual approach.”

Industry officials had a brighter view. Erik Milito, the director of upstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute, stressed that “we have a strong regulatory program in place.”

“We’re going to move forward to make sure that we don’t have another event like that again,” Milito added.

Administration officials also have broadly defended their drilling safety changes and insist that offshore oil and gas exploration is much safer than it was before the 2010 spill.

The Obama administration has asked Congress to give the safety bureau and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management more money to hire new inspectors and engineers that can keep a close watch on what is happening offshore. Agency officials also have implored lawmakers to boost the civil penalties that can be imposed whenever oil and gas companies run afoul of regulations governing energy production on the outer continental shelf.

Oceana’s Offshore Safety Report