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The Obama administration is proposing a new regulation on offshore oil and gas drilling meant to prevent the kind of accident that caused the deadly explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago, causing the largest oil spill in American history.
The draft rule by the US Interior Department would require stronger blowout preventers, devices meant to close an offshore well in case of an accidental drilling breach. A blowout preventer failed at the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010, apparently causing the explosion that killed 11 workers and spewed 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf, according to US government estimates.
The draft regulation, which was announced April 13, is the third announced by the Obama administration since the spill at the Macondo well. In 2010, the Interior Department imposed new rules on the strength of well casings, and two years later it strengthened rules on the use of cement to reinforce wells.
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This third regulation would be required for all offshore equipment used in the future as the administration moves to permit energy drilling for the first time in some federal waters of the southeastern US Atlantic Coast. Interior is also reviewing a plan by Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.
Allyson Anderson, the associate director of strategic engagement in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said the new rule is meant to show that, with proper oversight, such offshore drilling can be far safer than it was five years ago.
“We’re coming on five years [since the Deepwater Horizon disaster], and we’ve been working tirelessly in the regulation division since it happened,” Anderson said. “We’ve doubled down on building a culture of safety.”
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Despite this latest effort to protect the seas from oil contamination, the administration’s opening of new drilling venues has angered environmentalists, who also say they aren’t convinced that improvements in blowout preventers, while an improvement in safety practices, add up to a cure-all.
“Industry and government have taken measures over the past five years to reduce some of the risk in what is an inherently dangerous operation at sea,” said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s a far cry from saying it’s safe. And the last thing we need is to expose Atlantic or Arctic waters to a BP-style blowout.”
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There is some disagreement even within the US government about exactly what caused the Deepwater Horizon accident.
In the current proposal, the focus is on improving the design of the blowout preventer, a tall column of valves resting on the mouth of the well. Its purpose is to close its valves in an emergency. In 2010, federal investigators said the valves closed only partially, leaving a 1.4-inch gap that allowed oil to escape into the Gulf.
But a subsequent probe by the Chemical Safety Board came up with a different finding, that the pipe running from the rig on the surface of the Gulf to the mouth of the well had buckled, rendering the blowout preventer useless, regardless of how well the preventer may have been designed.
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com