Obama rolls out new sweeping offshore drilling rule

Obama rolls out new sweeping offshore drilling rule
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The Obama administration issued a suite of offshore drilling safety standards Thursday meant to prevent disasters like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill from occurring in the future. 

The regulation comes nearly six years after the disaster on a BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and caused an 87-day spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history whose effects are still being felt.

The rule focuses on blowout preventers, as well as other equipment and practices designed to prevent major oil and natural well disasters and mitigate the ones that do happen.

It’s the most significant piece of an agenda the Interior Department has undertaken in the six years since Deepwater Horizon to change the way the federal government oversees the offshore drilling industry, which brings in about 16 percent of the country’s oil and 5 percent of its gas.

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“The final Well Control Rule seeks to better protect human lives from offshore oil spills by comprehensively addressing the full range of systems and processes involved in well control operations,” Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Regulation: Senate panel approves driverless car bill | House bill to change joint-employer rule advances | Treasury to withdraw proposed estate tax rule | Feds delaying Obama methane leak rule Overnight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick GOP chairman probes Zinke’s charter plane use MORE told reporters Thursday.

“Through this rule, we’re requiring more stringent design requirements and stricter operating procedures for critical equipment used in offshore energy development.” 

The rule got a cold reception from the oil industry, with at least one group saying it is too prescriptive, would risk jobs and oil supply and could even decrease safety.

The rule includes stringent new design standards for blowout preventers, the main piece of equipment drillers use to stop well disasters from getting out of hand. It also has new standards for well casing and cementing, monitoring of wells and well containment, along with a number of operational procedures. 

Interior said it listened to a wide range of input about the rule, including from the oil industry. 

Brian Salerno, director of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said the agency loosened some standards on drilling margins and real-time monitoring in response to industry concerns but did not risk safety in the process.

“BSEE has worked tirelessly to listen to stakeholders throughout the review process to address the recommendations, and has adjusted the rule accordingly,” he said. “In general, we’ve added more risk-based and more performance-based language, which helps characterize the activities in actually run in the [outer continental shelf].”

Nonetheless, the Independent Petroleum Association of America blasted the rule.

“This long-anticipated rule, half a decade in the making, was the federal government’s chance to get it right — to implement new offshore operating standards that would balance workable safety measures with the continued development of America’s rich energy resources,” Dan Naatz, a lobbyist for the group, said in a statement.

“Instead, today’s highly prescriptive rule could result in unintended negative consequences leading to reduced safety, less environmental protection, fewer American jobs, and decreased U.S. oil and natural gas production.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API) withheld comment on the rule, saying it would review it extensively before passing judgment.

“We must make sure that technical changes were made to aspects of the government’s initial proposal that could have made offshore operations less safe,” Erik Milito, the association’s upstream group director, said in a statement. 

Congressional Republicans have threatened to block the rule through legislation or appropriations and ask the administration to go back to the drawing board.

But Jewell was confident the rule will stand.

“We are confident that it will not only stand the test of time, stand the test of any kinds of challenges that might come its way, but also upholds our responsibility to the American people, which is around the safe and responsible development of our resources in a way that we’re learning from our mistakes from the past,” she said. 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, welcomed the rule, though said it should have gone further. 

“This long-overdue rule is an important step forward for offshore drilling safety in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said in a statement.

“I still don’t believe that offshore drilling is safe enough, and I feel like every time a company starts a new well we’re playing Russian roulette with our oceans, but I congratulate the Obama Administration and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement for taking this crucial step that appropriately prioritizes workers and the environment ahead of corporate profits,” he said. 

Environmentalists had a similar take.

“The proposed rule is absolutely not sufficient to protect our oceans, but it is a significant improvement over the status quo and addresses some of the blowout-related concerns raised by various commissions following the BP disaster in 2010,” said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for the United States at Oceana. “The only way to truly ensure there will never be another disaster of the magnitude of Deepwater Horizon is to stop drilling offshore.”