Opinion: Business as usual for deepwater drilling?

A U.S. Coast Guard file photo shows the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig ablaze in April 2010.

New guidance from regulators intended to address industry concerns on complex rules

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — After fielding numerous complaints from oil companies, the federal government this week issued a five-page memo intended to clarify some of the provisions in deepwater drilling rules established last October in response to last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Oil companies say the news guidance helps give them some certainty in the permitting process, but critics charge that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is going back to business as usual by institutionalizing loopholes that allow permits to be issued without in-depth environmental scrutiny.

At the core of the issue, and hidden behind multiple layers of dense government and industry jargon, is how oil drilling companies will respond to what used to be the unthinkable worst-case scenario — an uncontrolled gusher of oil a mile beneath the surface of the sea.

To give you an idea of how non-transparent the regulations are, the Houston Chronicle reports that industry representatives complained that last October’s drilling rules affected more than 14,000 discretionary provisions in 80 different standards.

How can a set of regulations be effective if they’re that complex? All the rules need to say is, “Thou shalt not spill, and if you do, you have to stop it and clean it up.” The government may dispute this, but any set of regulations that has 14,000 discretionary provisions is, almost by definition, full of loopholes.

“Our goal remains the same as it has been from day one;  to ensure that offshore operations are conducted as safely as possible,” said bureau director Michael R. Bromwich. “This guidance document gives deepwater drilling operators additional information to help address some of the recurring issues that have been raised in our ongoing discussions with industry.”

In a press release, the agency said guidance contains no additional regulatory requirements, but instead provides clarifying information to assist the oil and gas industry in complying with existing regulations and guidance.

Regulators have met regularly with oil and gas operators and industry representatives to answer questions about new regulations and how the agency will apply National Environmental Policy Act requirements with respect to deepwater drilling operations.

The issues addressed in the March 28 memo include compliance issues relating to: the drilling safety rule, as well as further information on the government’s process for evaluating subsea containment information submitted by operators along with their permit applications.

Whether or not the new guidance helps address the critical issue of containment remains to be seen, and we won’t know if it’s effective or not until there is another deep sea spill. By then of course, it could be too late.

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