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Congress gets poor grade on offshore drilling safety

OSCA’s members were once part of the now-defunct National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill and Offshore Drilling, an independent White House panel. They formed their group to keep tabs on federal implementation of their 2011 suggestions.

OSCA noted the White House, oil-and-gas industry and Congress all made marginal improvements in the past year. It gave the Obama administration a “B” grade, industry a “B-minus” and lawmakers a “D-plus.”

The panel had concerns about the one bright spot it listed for Congress.

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OSCA commended lawmakers for passing the RESTORE Act, which would give 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines to Gulf states affected by the 2010 spill for coastal restoration.

But OSCA worried that the law’s language might “result in substantial delays and the diversion of large amounts of resources into purposes other than ecosystem restoration.”

It also blasted Congress for not pursuing the panel’s recommendations to raise the $75 million liability cap for spills and increase funding for spill response.

OSCA was more congratulatory of the Interior Department’s efforts, as well as those of the oil-and-gas industry.

Interior’s Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) is churning out better environmental impact statements before opening new areas for leasing, OSCA said.

The enforcement arm of Interior’s offshore program, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), was slow to institute the panel’s recommendations in 2012 after quickly rolling out regulations after the 2010 spill, OSCA concluded. 

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BSEE did, however, boost inspections in quality and frequency, OSCA said.

Industry is also making those reviews and regulations easier on itself by incorporating “lessons learned” from the 2010 Gulf spill, OSCA noted.

“Individual companies are adopting internal operating procedures that should significantly increase safety, and industry associations are developing numerous improved standards that govern the operations of their members. In addition, industry has significantly expanded the quality and quantity of the equipment to respond to a spill,” the report said.

The panel also kept its eye on the future, saying all actors would need to improve as oil-and-gas firms explore relatively uncharted Arctic waters.

OSCA said the Interior should attempt to learn from challenges Royal Dutch Shell faced in launching Arctic drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas last year.

After a handful of technical- and equipment related setbacks, Shell decided to halt its Arctic plans for this year. Interior is now requiring Shell to devise a comprehensive plan for its Arctic operations and to undergo a third-party review of its safety systems.

“In order to make informed decisions on exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean, both the government and industry need to do more testing of the effectiveness of key spill response and remediation technologies in the region and under challenging weather conditions,” OSCA said.