GAO report eyes offshore well containment regulatory progress

The US Department of the Interior has strengthened oversight of the offshore oil and gas industry’s ability to respond to a subsea well blowout, and industry has responded by improving well containment capabilities and creating dedicated well containment organizations, the US Government Accountability Office said.

But DOI has not fully documented its well containment review process or established a regular inspection process for equipment listed in well containment plans, the congressional watchdog service said in a report it prepared for Democratic leaders on the US House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Similarly, [DOI] does not have a documented process for monitoring the availability of equipment identified in operators’ well containment plans, but [it] requires operators to list multiple and redundant vessels and equipment in their well containment plans, and [DOI] officials believe this sufficiently mitigates the risk if certain equipment is unavailable,” it continued.

The report said the sort of redundant vessel availability that exists in the Gulf of Mexico is not present off Alaska, and suggested that DOI might want to consider this as it receives and evaluates Shell Offshore’s plans to drill for oil there.

“Finally, [DOI] has conducted two unannounced spill drills that have included a subsea well containment scenario, and officials told us it will incorporate these scenarios into future spill drills,” it said. “However, [DOI] has not established a time frame for incorporating subsea well containment scenarios into spill drills, and until it does so, there is limited assurance that operators drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or other areas will be prepared to respond to a subsea well blowout.”

More aggressive

Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the Energy and Commerce Committee’s ranking minority member, and Edward J. Markey (D-Calif.), ranking minority member of the committee’s Natural Resources Subcommittee, said as they released the report on Mar. 29 that it showed DOI needs to act more aggressively to establish an effective program to prevent subsea well blowouts.

“GAO found we currently have just ‘limited assurance’ that oil companies can stop offshore well blowouts,” Waxman said. “Two years after the disaster in the gulf, that’s not good enough. The risks are especially high in Alaska because of the unique environmental and logistical problems.”

Marcilynn A. Burke, DOI’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a Feb. 9 response to a draft of the Feb. 29 report that DOI concurred with the report’s recommendation to document a timeframe for incorporating well response scenarios into its unannounced spill drills.

The department also agrees with GAO that it’s important to properly document standards, criteria, and procedures which will be used to review and assess well containment plans submitted with drilling permit applications, she continued.

DOI’s US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement plans to finalize that document in 2012, as GAO’s report noted, and has taken several steps in the meantime to help ensure a constant, repeatable process for well containment plans which reasonably assures that they are being consistently reviewed, Burke said.

Contact Nick Snow at

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