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December 19, 2011

Another Report Declares Deepwater Drilling Unsafe

Oceana Latitude 2010

Last week the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council released a report about offshore drilling safety, and I bet you can guess what it shows: Deepwater drilling isn’t safe.

The report echoes many conclusions from previous reports on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, including Oceana’s report, “False Sense of Safety,” and presents a solid set of recommendations that the government can use to make offshore drilling safer.

A few of the report’s conclusions paint a particularly stark picture of the continued dangers of offshore drilling.

The report, titled “Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling Safety,” concludes as others have that blowout preventers, or BOPs – the last line of defense against blowouts and spills – are not designed to function correctly in deepwater drilling and so cannot be relied on. In the words of the report:

“the BOP system at the Macondo well [had] a number of deficiencies… that are indicative of deficiencies in the design process… [that] also may be present for BOP systems deployed for other deepwater drilling operations” (pg. 54).

But design is not their only problem; the report says testing is woefully inadequate as well. To fix these problems, the report calls for the redesign and improved testing of BOPs. In the meantime, deepwater drilling should be suspended, since BOPs cannot be relied upon for protection against spills.

The report also highlights the offshore oil and gas industry’s various safety failures. The industry has prioritized oil exploration research and development over safety, which explains why current spill cleanup and response technologies are decade-old relics. The industry lacks a strong safety culture. And, perhaps most disconcertingly, the report concludes that:

processes within the oil and gas industry to assess adequately the integrated risks associated with drilling a deepwater well… are currently lacking” (pg. 77).

So, even if the industry was willing to perform such analyses, it is unable to. Yet that does not stop them from assuring us that deepwater drilling is safe.

The third notable conclusion is that the U.S. needs to fundamentally reform its offshore regulatory system, moving from a prescriptive system – when the government tells companies what to do, how to do it, and when to do it – to a “hybrid regulatory system”, when companies would have more leeway in achieving goals set by regulators.

The government has begun this shift, but the report emphasizes that any successful hybrid system must be founded on effective prescriptive regulations. The report even specifies a set of new prescriptive regulations that would improve offshore safety and should be implemented.

We will watch to see if the government follows through on this recommendation. Unfortunately, other shortcomings abound in the current regulation of offshore drilling, such as insufficient inspection and enforcement capabilities. Until these systemic problems, which we discuss at length in “False Sense of Safety,” are addressed, any reform of the regulatory system will fail to make offshore drilling much safer.

It remains to be seen, though, whether such changes will be made, or whether the government instead continues to gloss over safety concerns and charge forward with drilling as if it were safe, begging for a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

You can help by telling your Senators to support the development of clean offshore wind energy instead of more dirty drilling.

Michael Craig is an Energy Analyst at Oceana.