Engineers say Interior changed oil report after they signed it

McClatchy NewspapersJune 11, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A group of engineers and oil experts said Friday that the Interior Department changed the language of a high-profile oil spill report after they'd signed it, falsely signaling their support for a drilling moratorium that they thought went too far.

The new language called for a stronger and wider moratorium on some oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico than the experts thought necessary. In fact, one said Friday, the stronger moratorium might instead increase the risks slightly.

"The reason we don't agree is that we think it makes the system less safe. It increases risk, it doesn't reduce risk," Texas oil consultant Ken Allen said in an interview.

Allen was among a group of experts who read and signed a May 27 statement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announcing new safety measures for offshore drilling, as well as a six-month moratorium on some drilling.

"The recommendations contained in this report have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering," Salazar said in the report.

However, as Allen and the others said in a statement, Salazar changed two key recommendations after they'd signed it.

The version they'd signed said Salazar recommended a six-month moratorium on permits for new exploratory wells in water deeper than 1,000 feet.

The final version recommended a six-month moratorium on "new wells being drilled using floating rigs." That included rigs in water deeper than 500 feet and covered more of them, Allen said.

Also, the version the experts signed called for "a temporary pause in all current drilling operations for a sufficient length of time" to perform additional safety tests for the 33 exploratory deepwater wells already working in the Gulf.

The final version urged "an immediate halt to drilling operations on the 33 permitted wells, not including the relief wells currently being drilled by BP, that are currently being drilled using floating rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling operations should cease as soon as safely practicable for a 6-month period."

Allen and the others said they agreed with all the other safety recommendations. "However, we do not agree with the six-month blanket moratorium on floating drilling," they said. "A moratorium was added after the final review and was never agreed to by the contributors."

An Interior spokeswoman said the government didn't mean to say the experts agreed with the moratorium.

"By listing the members of the (National Academy of Engineering) that peer-reviewed the 22 safety recommendations contained in the report, we didn't mean to imply that they also agreed with the moratorium on deepwater drilling," Kendra Barkoff said.

"We acknowledge that they were not asked to review or comment on the proposed moratorium and that they peer-reviewed the report on a technical basis. The moratorium on deepwater drilling is based on the need for a comprehensive review of safety in deepwater operations."

Allen said the moratorium could marginally increase the risk of another spill.

"Stopping and temporarily abandoning the well and then re-entering the well ... there is an element of risk," he said. "The Deepwater Horizon was not drilling, it was temporarily abandoning the well. That's when they ran into trouble."

Also, he said the six-month moratorium could drive owners of the rigs to ship them elsewhere in the world to keep making money.

"The rigs that leave first are going to be bigger, newer rigs. The ones that come back last are the newer, bigger rigs. ... It's not major. All of them meet the requirements. But we're talking about marginal risks," Allen said.

As the rigs leave or shut down, experienced operators will go with them or leave the industry, Allen said.

"When we start back up again, we're going to have a much harder time getting them back. We'll have less experienced people on the rigs," he said.

Finally, he said Gulf oil production is starting to decline. He said one small producer had told investors that it alone would produce 2 million barrels fewer this year than it had thought it would.

"So we're going to have to import more oil by tanker," he said, "and ... history tells us we have more spills by tanker."

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