Oil drilled deeper, rules re­laxed af­ter spill

Times Standard (Eureka) - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Mcgill and Matthew Brown

Ten years ago, an oil rig ex­plo­sion killed 11 and un­leashed an en­vi­ron­men­tal night­mare in the Gulf of Mex­ico.

NEW OR­LEANS » Ten years af­ter an oil rig ex­plo­sion killed 11 work­ers and un­leashed an en­vi­ron­men­tal night­mare in the Gulf of Mex­ico, com­pa­nies are drilling into deeper and deeper waters, where the pay­offs can be huge but the risks are greater than ever.

In­dus­try lead­ers and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say they’re de­ter­mined to pre­vent a re­peat of BP’s Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter. It spilled 134 mil­lion gal­lons of oil that fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida, killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of marine an­i­mals and dev­as­tated the re­gion’s tourist econ­omy.

Yet safety rules adopted in the spill’s af­ter­math have been eased as part of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s drive to boost U.S. oil pro­duc­tion. And gov­ern­ment data re­viewed by The As­so­ci­ated Press shows the num­ber of safety in­spec­tion vis­its has de­clined in re­cent years, al­though of­fi­cials say checks of elec­tronic records, safety sys­tems and in­di­vid­ual oil rig com­po­nents have in­creased.

To­day com­pa­nies are in­creas­ingly re­liant on pro­duc­tion from deeper and in­her­ently more dan­ger­ous oil re­serves, where drill crews can grap­ple with ul­tra-high pres­sures and oil tem­per­a­tures that can top 350 de­grees.

De­spite al­most $2 bil­lion in spend­ing by the in­dus­try on equip­ment to re­spond to an oil well blowout like BP’s, some sci­en­tists, for­mer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say safety prac­tices ap­pear to be erod­ing. And there are wor­ries that cleanup tac­tics have changed lit­tle in decades

and are likely to prove as in­ef­fec­tive as they were in 2010.

“I’m con­cerned that in the in­dus­try, the lessons aren’t fully learned — that we’re tend­ing to back­slide,” said Don­ald Boesch, a marine science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mary­land who was on a fed­eral com­mis­sion that de­ter­mined the BP blowout was pre­ventable.

Reg­u­la­tors and in­dus­try lead­ers say they’ve em­ployed lessons from the April 20, 2010, dis­as­ter to make deep-wa­ter drilling safer by set­ting tougher con­struc­tion and en­force­ment stan­dards.

“I think the event 10 years ago re­ally ini­ti­ated kind of a new day in off­shore safety,” said De­bra Phillips, of the Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute, a stan­dards-set­ting trade as­so­ci­a­tion.

Com­pa­nies have a fi­nan­cial in­ter­est in pre­vent­ing a re­peat of the 2010 dis­as­ter, which cost BP more than $69 bil­lion in cleanup, fines, fees and set­tle­ments. Ques­tions

over en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects linger, and lit­i­ga­tion con­tin­ues over health prob­lems suf­fered by cleanup work­ers.

Com­pet­ing oil gi­ants joined in the dis­as­ter’s wake to cre­ate the Marine Well Con­tain­ment Co., which has equip­ment and ves­sels po­si­tioned re­gion­wide to quickly cor­ral oil if an­other ma­jor spill oc­curs.

“All of (the) in­dus­try wanted to make sure that noth­ing like it could ever hap­pen again,” said CEO David Nick­er­son, at the com­pany’s com­plex near Cor­pus Christi on Texas’ coast.

He was dwarfed by “cap­ping stacks” — mul­ti­story struc­tures of pip­ing, valves and gauges de­signed to be low­ered to halt a ma­jor high-pres­sure blowout.

The hope is that such equip­ment won’t be needed. Yet the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­laxed rules adopted in 2016, in­clud­ing the fre­quency of drilling rig safety tests. That’s pro­jected

to save en­ergy com­pa­nies roughly $1.7 bil­lion in com­pli­ance costs over a decade.

An AP re­view found the num­ber of safety in­spec­tion vis­its by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and En­vi­ron­men­tal En­force­ment — cre­ated af­ter the spill — went down more than 20% over the past six years in the Gulf.

In­dus­try ad­vo­cates say in­spec­tion fig­ures re­flect greater em­pha­sis on com­plex sys­tems that in­flu­ence safety rather than mi­nor tech­ni­cal mat­ters, and note there are fewer, if big­ger, ac­tive oil plat­forms. They say the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rule changes al­low com­pa­nies to de­vi­ate from “one-siz­e­fits-all” stan­dards not al­ways suited to wa­ter pres­sure and other con­di­tions at in­di­vid­ual wells.

“Some­times, when the reg­u­la­tions are quite pre­scrip­tive, it can ac­tu­ally in­ad­ver­tently de­te­ri­o­rate safety,” said Phillips, of the Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute.

GERALD HER­BERT — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Oil spreads in the Gulf of Mex­ico on April 21, 2010, as the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil rig burns.

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