Offshore Drilling Safety & Transparency: Still Lacking

Here’s the latest guidance from the federal government to oil companies applying for new deepwater drilling permits. This document focuses on the two new well-containment devices rolled out last month, and mentions a new software tool BOEMRE is relying on to evaluate the risk posed by individual deepwater wells should they blow out. There is no link to the software so nobody can assess how robust it is; and, given BOEMRE’s silence on these topics, it seems likely that:

1) Neither of the well-containment devices we’re now relying on has actually been deployed and field-tested to see if it can reliably function in real Gulf deepwater conditions.

2) BOEMRE is ignoring oil spill cleanup technology, techniques and capacity, and is going forward with high-risk, high-pressure well permits in ultradeep waters far offshore, ensuring the same poor cleanup performance for the next major spill that we experienced with Exxon Valdez and the BP spill. (Recall that there could be 65 million gallons of oil spilled during the 2-3 weeks required to assemble and deploy one of the new containment devices, assuming they work perfectly on the first try.)

Assuming they actually do work, it is progress to have better well-containment options. Especially since we now know that blowout preventers – that previous bit of miracle technology we faithfully relied on – are fundamentally flawed by design, unable to reliably function at the fluid pressures and temperatures likely to be encountered in deep wells that go out of control.

But well containment is irrelevant for other risks that commonly cause major spills, like tanker accidents and intentional sabotage. Petrobras is developing their Cascade and Chinook deepwater oil and gas finds in the Gulf of Mexico using an FPSO (essentially a stationary oil tanker), the BW Pioneer, which can hold 25 million gallons. Other tankers will regularly unload crude from the Pioneer and shuttle it back to port (Galveston?). The Cascade and Chinook wells are 150 miles offshore in water 8,000-9,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 27,000 feet (for comparison, BP’s failed Macondo well that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig last April was just 40 miles offshore, in water 5,000 feet deep and drilled to total depth of 18,000 feet). Petrobras expects to initially produce 3.4 million gallons per day combined from its two wells. (BP’s Macondo well initially spilled 2.6 million gallons per day.)

This clip is a bit long, but Rachel Maddow got Noble Energy’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan that accompanied their permit to resume deepwater drilling, the first permit BOEMRE approved since the BP spill. This plan should include cleanup details. The plan is dated September 2009, seven months before the BP spill, and includes no new information or plans, according to Maddow.

So how can BOEMRE express such confidence in the ability to safely and effectively respond to a worst-case spill scenario if we’re still relying on old cleanup plans that gave us scenes like this? And why is this information so difficult for us ordinary folks to come by?