Experts: Another BP-style Gulf blowout all too possible

McClatchy NewspapersApril 17, 2012 

— Much more needs to be done to lower the risks of another offshore oil disaster like the BP blowout two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, the presidential commission that investigated the disaster reported Tuesday in its first progress update.

The presidential oil spill commission disbanded after it finished its main report last year, but its seven members recently got together again to look back on whether their recommendations had been carried out. Many steps to prevent or sop up another oil blowout haven’t been taken.

“The risks will only increase as drilling moves into deeper waters with harsher, less familiar environmental conditions,” the report says. “Delays in taking the necessary precautions threaten new disasters, and their occurrence could, in turn, seriously threaten the nation’s energy security.”

The Gulf oil spill began with an explosion of a deepwater well on April 20, 2010, killing 11 men. Failure of its blowout preventer, a device meant to seal off the well in an emergency, resulted in the release of more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Interior Department addressed the problems of blowout preventers in an interim rule in 2010, and it’s working on a new regulation that will upgrade the requirements significantly, the report said. But the department hasn’t issued rules to correct the design flaw of the blowout preventer that made it fail to operate properly. It also hasn’t followed a recommendation to require that blowout preventers and other equipment have sensors that show how well they’re functioning.

In a section on the Arctic Ocean, the commission calls for more money to increase the scientific understanding of the region’s environment and wildlife in areas where drilling is expected. The Obama administration is near final approval for Shell Oil to drill this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The commissioners point out that the Coast Guard has said it isn’t capable of responding to an oil spill in the Arctic. They called for industry to demonstrate that it can contain and clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions.

Shell and government agencies conducted Arctic oil-spill exercises last month. The industry also has experimented with burning spilled oil and recovering it with machinery in icy conditions in Norway and in a lab, but “these techniques have not been successfully tested in the extreme weather conditions that are often present in Arctic waters, nor (have) they been evaluated in any significant way by government entities,” the commissioners reported.

The environmental advocacy group Oceana’s senior scientist Jackie Savitz said the oil spill commission’s overall recommendations were too weak in the first place and weren’t being followed: “So what we’re left with is a situation where not much has changed, and we could have the same spill any day.”

Oceana released its own report Tuesday on how well the commission’s recommendations were carried out. It gave the government and industry Fs and Ds.

Oil spill-response plans filed before the BP disaster in some cases listed the walrus as a local species in the Gulf, evidence of careless clip jobs from Alaska plans. That no longer happens, and the quality of the reviews has improved, Oceana said. Still, it said that the government underestimates the risks of spills and potential damage from spills, and uses these low estimates to justify more drilling.

Oceana also argued that the government hadn’t made sure that the industry is prepared to deal with spills. As one example, it said that Interior had approved applications with claims that companies could skim up far more oil than they’d ever done before.

Oceana and the presidential commission made some identical criticisms. Both, for example, said that the industry’s Center for Offshore Safety, which was created in response to the BP spill, should be independent and not under the control of the industry’s lobby group, the American Petroleum Institute.

The oil industry also set up two consortiums to provide well-containment equipment. Two years ago, the equipment didn’t exist and it took three months to create it while the oil gushed. Now “it could take several weeks to deploy these systems,” the commissioners said. “Some also question whether these systems have been adequately proven to be effective under the difficult conditions of deep water drilling.”

The commissioners gave the industry a C plus.

Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s group director of upstream and industry operations, told reporters last week that the industry conducted a "comprehensive reappraisal of safety for offshore operations." Two years later, he said, “that evaluation has led to significant safety enhancements in the offshore business and an enhanced framework of rules, standards and oversight to ensure the highest level of safety for the development of our ample offshore resources.”

The commissioners graded Congress with a D for, among other things, failing to pass legislation that would improve oil drilling management. The commissioners’ report also said that the House of Representatives had passed several bills that contained provisions that ran contrary to the recommendations, including requirements for leases in the Gulf without adequate reviews. Congress also hasn’t passed the commission’s recommendation that 80 percent of all penalties from the spill go to long-term restoration of the Gulf.

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