DOI's New Drilling Rules: Two Steps In The Right Direction

Department of the Interior Secretary Salazar announced two new rules today governing offshore drilling for oil and gas.  These rules are very positive steps.

One rule deals with drilling safety.  Per the DOI fact sheet, this rule “addresses both well bore integrity and well control equipment and procedures.”  The rule includes numerous technical changes that are directly related to criticisms of how the BP Macondo well was drilled and secured, among which are new requirements for independent third-party verification of the well casing and cementing programs, and for verification that the blind shear rams on blowout preventers will be able to cut “any drill pipe in the hole under maximum anticipated surface pressure.”  There is also a new requirement for BOEM approval for the replacement of heavier drilling fluid (“mud”) with lighter. 

The second rule deals with workplace safety, the “workplace” being a drilling rig.  It imposes a Safety and Environmental Management System (“SEMS”) that was kicking around the Minerals Management Service for years and that the oil industry opposed.  That argument is now over.  The new rule also requires a realistic “facility-level risk assessment” and an oil spill contingency plan that is “in place and validated by drills.”

It is too early in the accident investigation process to say with certainty whether these new rules would have prevented the Deepwater Horizon accident or speeded up the cleanup and containment efforts.  But these rules will certainly help minimize the threat of future drilling accidents on the Outer Continental Shelf. 

DOI and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Revenue and Enforcement (“BOEMRE”) have been very active in trying to fix what went wrong at MMS and on the Deepwater Horizon platform.   Congress has a role to play here also in making structural changes to our national drilling policy that BOEMRE cannot do administratively, for example by following up on the bill passed by the House and Senator Reid’s bill which would re-orient our national policy on offshore oil and gas activities to ensure that oil and gas development is more balanced with environmental protection.  And on a larger scale, I hope that Congress will quickly accept its responsibility to fix what is wrong with our national energy policy and move us from reliance on fossil fuels from the outer continental shelf and elsewhere, and towards a job-rich clean energy future.