Former drilling chief: US ‘on a course to repeat’ Gulf oil spill

WASHINGTON — The United States is “on a course to repeat” the same mistakes that led to the devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster four years ago, a former top offshore drilling regulator warned Thursday.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, the former Minerals Management Service director, Elizabeth Birnbaum, says the Obama administration “still has not taken key steps . . . to increase drilling safety.”

Birnbaum, who was ousted from her job overseeing offshore drilling just weeks after BP’s Macondo well blew out in the Gulf, penned the op-ed with Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for U.S. oceans at the conservation group Oceana.

Birnbaum and Savitz say the chief problem is regulators’ failure to impose new mandates that would boost the performance of blowout preventers, after the Deepwater Horizon disaster revealed shortcomings in the devices meant to be a final emergency safeguard against uncontrolled oil and gas flows.

Major redesign needed

In a December 2011 report, the National Academy of Engineering called for an overhaul of blowout preventers, saying the emergency devices are far from foolproof. And federal regulators agreed, saying they were on track to set strong new standards for the devices by the end of 2012.

Shore cleanup: BP says spill cleanup on Gulf shoreline complete

But 16 months after that self-imposed deadline, Birnbaum and Savitz noted, federal regulators have yet to issue a broad proposal — much less a final suite of mandates — even though blowout preventer manufacturers have since rolled out more powerful designs.

“It’s unfathomable that the administration has failed to act on the (NAE’s) findings,” Birnbaum and Savitz say. “Deep-water drilling continues in the Gulf. New leases are being offered by the government and sold to energy companies each year. Yet the NAE report warned that a blowout in deep water may not be controllable with current technology.”

Delayed mandates: Feds push back timeline for offshore drilling rules

The pair cite recent shallow water accidents as evidence of the risks of another catastrophe, including the blowout of a natural gas well last July.

“The same lack of control could easily lead to another oil blowout in deep water,” Savitz and Birnbaum said, adding that the risks expand as the government contemplates geophysical research and eventual drilling in Atlantic waters.

Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw stressed that in response to the spill, “the Obama Administration launched the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in U.S. history.”

“The comprehensive reforms, which strengthen requirements for everything from well design, blowout preventer testing and maintenance and workplace safety, to corporate accountability, are helping ensure that the United States can safely and responsibly expand development of its domestic energy resources,” Kershaw said.

Michael Bromwich, a former drilling regulator who lead a post-spill overhaul of the federal agencies that police offshore drilling, said Birnbaum and Savitz gave “short shrift to the enormous strides that were made in the immediate aftermath of the oil spill.”

“Two major rules were enacted and implemented that have undeniably made offshore drilling safer than ever before,” said Bromwich, now a consultant in Washington, D.C. “The enormous organizational changes, barely referred to in the piece, eliminated the conflicts of interest that plagued offshore drilling oversight for years.”

New testing

Although a broader blowout preventer rule is still in the works, the Interior Department moved quickly to impose new requirements for the construction of subsea wells and BOP testing after the disaster. New post-spill rules require the blowout preventers to be independently certified by third parties. Tests of the devices must occur more frequently than before. And some of those tests have to be witnessed by federal regulators.

Bromwich acknowledged that “the government could have moved faster and more forcefully in the last couple of years in implementing the many recommendations made by various organizations, especially on blowout preventers.”

But the risk of another offshore blowout has been substantially reduced, he said. “To suggest that things are largely unchanged from the time of Deepwater Horizon is neither fair nor accurate.”

In the years since the oil spill, the bulk of the criticism for regulatory inaction has been directed at Congress, which passed only one broad measure in response to the accident — legislation that would steer some fine money to Gulf restoration projects.

Birnbaum, now a consultant at SEB strategies, has publicly spoken only occasionally about the issue since the 2010 disaster, including testimony before a panel investigating the incident.

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