Reforming key regulations to increase drilling safety in the Gulf

There are a few conceptually simple steps that the federal government could take to improve rig safety and oil spill prevention, response and containment.  Whether those steps are politically feasible in today’s Congressional environment is another question.

At the Congressional level, there are three positive changes we recommend that were also proposed by the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.  First, the $75 million liability cap on offshore facilities in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 needs to be eliminated entirely.  If an oil company can’t afford to clean up its mess, it shouldn’t be drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf in the first place. 

Second, the 30-day limit in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act for the Department of Interior to respond to applications for exploration permits should be at least doubled.  Thirty days is just not enough for the federal regulators to assess complicated permit applications and the newly-required worst-case oil spill scenarios. 

Last, in addition to the need for Congress to adequately fund the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management and Regulation (BOEMRE), there should be a chief science officer within the department who would have the final say over approval of exploration and drilling applications on the Outer Continental Shelf.  This change would elevate science over oil company profits, as it should be.

At the BOEMRE level, there are two important changes that should be implemented.  First, the critical flaw in the Cameron-style blowout preventers that was identified in the recent BOEMRE-commissioned technical report needs to be fixed and tested under operational conditions before new OCS drilling is allowed. 

Second, the two blowout containment systems on which BOEMRE is relying in granting new exploration permits, one short-term and one long-term, also need to be tested in operational conditions.  Table-top exercises are not sufficient unless the table is under 10,000 feet of seawater. 

BOEMRE has been actively trying to make OCS drilling safer – I’ve listed some of their positive work here.   BOEMRE can adopt these steps tomorrow if it wants to. Congress is another story.  Having watched the budget debacle during the past few months, it will be a tougher issue to get either party to focus on OCS drilling safety reforms. 

For another overview of what hasn’t happened in Congress, here is a recent article from the Times-Picayune.  The lead sentence from that article is:  “A year after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Congress has done virtually nothing to address the issues raised by the oil spill -- from industry liability limits, to regulatory reform, to coastal restoration, to broader issues of energy policy.”  We deserve better as a nation. NRDC and others have urged Congress to implement the recommendations of the President's Oil Spill Commission, without success.

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