Feds push back timeline for offshore drilling rules

The federal government is no longer on track to propose new rules for Arctic oil development and offshore emergency equipment before the end of the year.

The head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement conceded that the two proposals will not be ready until 2014 and blamed the 16-day government shutdown for some of the delay.

“They’re both still in the final stages of development,” said bureau Director Brian Salerno in an interview. “Both I would say are casualties of the shutdown, because we were not able to do any work on those, and even though it’s a 16-day shutdown, it’s not a one-for-one. It really sets it back a little bit further.”

One of the proposed regulations has been in the works since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster revealed shortcomings in the blowout preventers that are used as a final emergency safeguard against uncontrolled oil and gas flows.

The hulking devices sit atop wells and can be activated in an emergency to cut drill pipe and block off the hole, trapping oil and gas inside. But a forensic investigation of the blowout preventer used at BP’s failed Macondo well concluded that a powerful rush of oil and gas caused drill pipe to buckle and shift, ultimately preventing powerful shearing rams on the device from cutting the pipe and sealing the hole.

Related story: Lawmakers press feds for info on blowout preventer rule

Although blowout preventer manufacturers are testing new designs and selling stronger shearing rams meant to slash through thick pipe connections and any debris, a new federal rule likely would give those voluntary changes the force of law. Separately, Mississippi’s oil and gas regulators also are considering a proposal to tighten the state’s standards for blowout preventers.

Beyond the BOP rule, regulators at the safety bureau have been drafting a formal proposal of minimum standards for oil and gas activity in U.S. Arctic waters, partly with an eye on codifying some of the voluntary steps that Shell took during its 2012 drilling in the area.

Federal regulators previously have said both measures would be unveiled by the end of this year.

Salerno stressed that despite the delay, both rules are a priority.

“I personally feel a sense of urgency to get both of those rules out,” he said. “I know the industry is waiting for them. They want that clarity. We are working as fast as we can to get them out and we want them to be good well-written rules that are clear as to what is expected.”

Salerno said the bureau is finalizing language in the proposals now, but the measures will not be available until 2014.

The Interior Department has not yet submitted the draft blowout preventer and Arctic rules to the Office of Management and Budget for a required regulatory review that can span 90 days.

The safety bureau has already advanced one item on its regulatory agenda, a broad plan to tighten standards for oil and gas production systems that are used offshore. The 149-page proposal, unveiled in August, would require more rigorous cradle-to-grave assessments of critical safety and pollution prevention equipment, such as foam firefighting systems and electronic emergency shutdown devices.

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