Bromwich sees offshore safety progress since Macondo accident

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 31 -- US offshore oil and gas safety has improved significantly since the Macondo well accident as the industry has responded aggressively to develop new spill containment technologies and comply with more stringent regulations, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement Director Michael R. Bromwich told a House committee.

But BOEMRE will need more funding if federal lawmakers expect it to keep pace as the search for oil and gas moves into deeper water and formations with higher pressures, Bromwich said. “We will be able to speed up the permitting process and keep up with drilling technology advances, but only with the necessary funding,” he said during a Mar. 30 Natural Resources Committee hearing on the US Department of the Interior agency’s fiscal 2012 budget request.

BOEMRE employees are particularly frustrated that since US President Barack Obama requested $100 million of new funding for the agency last summer, it has received only $10 million, he added.

The Apr. 20, 2010, blowout at the deepwater Macondo well, which led to the destruction of the semisubmersible Deepwater Horizon rig and the deaths of 11 people, and the subsequent massive oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, jolted both the oil and gas industry and what was then the US Minerals Management Service out of years of complacency, Bromwich maintained.

“Companies now have to have very detailed plans on how they do casing and well structures, as well as blowout preventers,” he said. “We also require subsea containment capabilities which they haven’t had to demonstrate before. We’re much more confident than we were before that we’ve driven down the risks of a blowout to begin with and that, if one occurs, it can be contained.”

‘More we can do’
Bromwich said BOEMRE is pressing both the Marine Well Containment Co. and Helix Well Solutions Group to test their systems further and to make them able to work at greater depths and under higher pressure. “I have directed both groups to meet with me to discuss expanding their systems’ capabilities. There’s more we can do going forward, but [US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar] and I both felt that we’d seen enough to begin allowing deepwater permits to be approved,” he said.

He said he recognizes companies producing oil and gas offshore have to satisfy more rigorous requirements now, and that it can take more time. But Bromwich also said the seven deepwater permits BOEMRE has approved since Feb. 17, when the industry demonstrated its capacity to contain offshore spills to his and Salazar’s satisfaction, suggest that producers can meet this challenge.

“They have all complied not only with the requirements of NTL No. 6, which was issued last June weeks after the Macondo well blew out, but also with the new safety requirements,” he said. “That demonstrates to me that all of the industry can comply with them. I believe we’ll see a continued surge of permit applications.”

Bromwich said he is willing to consider delays related to the moratorium Salazar imposed soon after the accident and spill as reasons for possibly extending a lease, but added that he has received requests for more time from producers with leases expiring in 2020. “I think that’s outrageous,” he said. “If someone’s lease is expiring in the next year and it hasn’t been explored because of the moratorium, that’s another situation entirely.”

He suggested that the offshore oil and gas culture has changed since the accident and spill. “I think it was a chastening experience. A lot of companies took pride in their safety cultures and criticized other companies for not being as diligent,” he said. “But I believe there was complacency overall. Many acknowledged that they’d been complacent about the possibility of a catastrophic spill. They recognize that something like this can’t happen again.”

BOP questions
Responding to Ranking Minority Member Edward J. Markey’s (D-Mass.) question about blowout preventers’ effectiveness after Det Norske Veritas’s report last week said that the Deepwater Horizon’s BOP clearly failed, Bromwich said: “There certainly are more questions now about BOPs, but there were questions before. We knew the BOP at the Deepwater Horizon didn’t work as anticipated. Now we know how it didn’t work. The [BOEMRE-US Coast Guard] joint investigation team is conducting a hearing in New Orleans on Apr. 4 to get a lot more information about the analysis which the independent contractor conducted.”

He also disputed Republican committee members’ statements that a de facto offshore drilling moratorium is in place. Decisions removing the eastern gulf and mid-Atlantic portions of the US Outer Continental Shelf from the 2012-17 program were made “in the shadow of Deepwater Horizon and concerns about offshore drilling safety,” Bromwich told the committee. “As more time passes, we are all gaining confidence that offshore drilling can be safer. If that continues, the decisions could possibly be reconsidered.”

He also told committee member Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) that it’s unlikely that BOEMRE would resume widespread use of categorical exclusions (CXs) as it considers offshore drilling permits. “We were widely criticized for using CXs by the CEQ, the president’s commission, and others,” he said. “We are moving forward with site-specific environmental assessments of the deepwater as we review our analytic process, and we could possibly resume use of CXs, although I doubt we will.”

Lamborn questioned whether a full EA is always necessary. “If you have a fully evaluated formation 20 miles away, you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel because the same conditions apply,” he observed.

“But they don’t,” Bromwich immediately responded. “You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach because conditions change. I would point out that the first site-specific EA we just completed was done in 30 days. Now that we have done the first one, I suspect that later ones will take less time. Again, here, as in many other areas, the answer is for us to have more resources. We have a limited number of people to do the work. We need more.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.



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