Offshore oil planning requires more science, spill commission told

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Aug. 26 -- More robust science is clearly needed in federal offshore oil and gas planning, several witnesses told US President Barack Obama’s independent commission on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and offshore drilling on Aug. 25. But they disagreed on whether it should come from agencies outside the US Department of the Interior or be increased within DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOE).

Some witnesses said that BOE, when it was the US Minerals Management Service, became too dependent on the oil and gas industry for scientific guidance. This posed a conflict of interest since MMS was responsible for regulating federal offshore oil and gas activities and collecting revenues from onshore and offshore leases, they suggested.

They recommended that BOE start to use more scientific expertise from the US Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal agencies to develop oil and gas strategies that consider broader environmental impacts. Two other witnesses, former MMS Directors S. Lisa Birnbaum and Randall B. Luthi, responded that increasing scientific expertise within the agency would be more effective.

Several environmental organizations have charged that MMS’s culture emphasized leasing and development without adequately considering impacts on other resources. “As a society, we are really good at gathering information and using the best available technology to analyze that information and incorporate it into our decision-making,” one witness, World Wildlife Fund Pres. Carter Roberts, told the commission.

“Yet our approach to oil has been antiquated at best, utterly dependent on information supplied by oil companies about what they can gain without adequate science to understand what could be lost,” Roberts said, adding, “It is time to bring science back into our decision-making.”

Three-year delay
Roberts recommended that DOI appoint an independent environmental science director who would work with other federal agencies to analyze necessary data without the competing pressure of also collecting royalties and fees. Roberts said there will need to be assurances that collected information is reliable, and suggested that no area be opened for leasing for 3 years while the data is analyzed. Federal science agencies and the US Coast Guard also should be directed to establish specific drilling permit requirements, he said.

A second witness, Margaret R. Caldwell, director of the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, said EPA, NOAA, and similar federal entities should be formally designated federal oil and gas cooperating agencies because their scientists are uniquely capable of advising BOE and DOI about environmental risks. “Once they have received this designation, BOE will have to engage them early and frequently in the planning process and respond to their recommendations,” she said.

Caldwell added that the US Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) already designates coastal states and the US attorney general as primary federal oil and gas planning consultants. Bringing other federal agencies with their scientific expertise would improve the process, she said.

Some commission members showed interest in seeing more scientists from other federal agencies supply their views to the former MMS, which became BOE as part of a major reorganization by US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar on May 19 that included formally separating the agency’s minerals revenue management program from its leasing and resource management responsibilities.

William K. Reilly, a former EPA administrator who co-chairs Obama’s spill commission with former Florida Gov. and US Sen. D. Robert Graham, said he was very interested in seeing BOE consult NOAA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality more often. He also expressed disappointment that neither entity apparently was approached before the administration’s Mar. 31 announcement that it was considering an expanded offshore leasing program.

Already consulting
The existing process allows NOAA and other agencies with specific ocean responsibilities to comment at various stages of BOE’s 5-year OCS planning program development, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco testified. The agency she leads has been particularly active since Obama became president, she said, adding, “Not all our concerns were acted upon. They were listened to, however, and many were incorporating into the final decisions.”

Lubchenco appeared most concerned about NOAA and similar agencies getting more responsibilities without bigger budgets, but added that she thinks environmental reviews are necessary at each offshore resource planning and leasing step. “I think there has been an honest attempt to make the best use of the information that’s available,” she said. “There have been instances where other information hasn’t been available, or we haven’t had enough time,” an apparent reference to a 30-day time limit established under the 2005 Energy Policy Act for responding to drilling permit applications. Salazar has asked Congress to repeal that requirement, and the US House made that a provision of its spill response bill.

CEQ Chairwoman Nancy H. Sutley, who testified alongside Lubchenco, said that the March offshore leasing announcement was not intended to preempt National Environmental Policy Act and Oil Pollution Act requirements. “We’ve had good cooperation going forward,” she said, adding that BOE already generates a lot of its own information from several sources which sometimes may not be well integrated because it is so massive.

Commission member Frances G. Beineke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, nevertheless suggested that the right kind of information wasn’t entering the federal offshore oil and gas planning process. “A lot of articles suggested that within MMS, a lot of scientific questions weren’t getting enough attention,” she said.

Birnbaum, who was MMS director from July 2009 until she resigned on May 27, noted that the agency hired its first science advisor, Alan D. Thornhill, in March to discuss science’s role at MMS and how to make it more robust. “There’s no question that more investment in science is needed, and I believe it should be at BOE, where it can focus on specific questions related to areas being considered for leasing,” she said.

‘At least co-equal’
“I’m a little bit dismayed to hear that scientists at other agencies felt they weren’t being heard,” Birnbaum continued in her first major Washington appearance since testifying before the US House Natural Resources Committee on May 26. “At the very least, science at MMS needs to be raised so it’s at least co-equal with other agencies.”

“We were actually very proud of what MMS scientists were doing,” said Luthi, who was MMS director from July 2007 to January 2009 after being deputy director of DOI’s US Fish and Wildlife Service. “There was one whale migration study in the Gulf of Mexico which was unprecedented.”

Other witnesses suggested that MMS was not able to keep scientific pace as the oil and gas industry moved into deeper water because the White House’s Office of Management and Budget kept cutting the agency’s scientific budget. This may have been because OMB felt data would not be needed because congressional moratoriums and presidential withdrawals kept oil and gas activity out of most of the federal OCS during the 1980s and 1990s, and the money could be spent for more immediate purposes elsewhere, they said.

MMS’s attention was dominated by royalty matters during that time, which kept it from considering emerging deepwater OCS issues, noted Thomas R. Kitsos, who was deputy and acting MMS director from 1998 to 2001. The agency’s overall budget also contract under Democratic as well as Republican administrations, according to Tyler Priest, global studies director at the University of Houston’s CT Bauer College of Business.

Birnbaum recommended that BOE upgrade technical requirements for offshore equipment and procedures, and create a more substantial body of regulation beyond the oil and gas industry’s recommended standards and practices. “While the US Coast Guard is responsible for implementing new OCS regulations, it has never acted on MMS’s invitations to comment before enactment,” she said.

“It was industry, not government, that developed the deepwater technology and equipment, and therefore it was not only necessary, but highly beneficial, to develop and maintain connections with industry to keep abreast of and regulate the latest technology and safety issues,” said Luthi, who became National Ocean Industries Association president on Mar. 1. “I was never under the impression that industry was calling the shots, but we certainly sought [its] input, and I believe rightly so.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

Related Articles

Chinese regulators approve Sinopec’s plan for grassroots refinery

02/06/2015 China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has approved Sinopec Beijing Yanshan Petrochemical Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of China Nation...

BOEM schedules public meetings about draft proposed 5-year OCS plan

02/06/2015 The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will hold the first of 20 public meetings in Washington on Feb. 9 to receive public comments on potential ...

Congressional Republicans renew bid to halt sue-and-settle maneuvers

02/05/2015 Calling it an affront to regulatory accountability that results in unchecked compliance burdens, US Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and US Rep. D...

Oil-price collapse may aggravate producing nations’ other problems

02/05/2015 The recent global crude-oil price plunge could be aggravating underlying problems in Mexico, Colombia, and other Western Hemisphere producing natio...

Goodlatte reintroduces bills to repeal, reform RFS

02/05/2015 Calling it “a true ‘kitchen table’ issue,” US Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) reintroduced a pair of bills to address problems in the federal Renewable ...

Alberta’s premier seeks more North American energy integration

02/05/2015 Better policy integration and cooperation will be needed for Canada, Mexico, and the US to fully realize the North American energy renaissance’s po...

Oil, gas infrastructure investments essential, House panel told

02/04/2015 Investments in oil and gas transportation and storage should move ahead because they are essential in continuing the US economic recovery and North...

EPA suggests DOS reconsider Keystone XL climate impact conclusions

02/03/2015 The US Department of State might want to reconsider its conclusions regarding potential climate impacts from the proposed Keystone XL crude oil pip...

Obama’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget recycles oil tax increases

02/02/2015 US President Barack Obama has proposed his federal budget for fiscal 2016 that he said was designed to help a beleaguered middle class take advanta...
White Papers

Transforming the Oil and Gas Industry with EPPM

With budgets in the billions, timelines spanning years, and life cycles extending over decades, oil an...
Sponsored by

Asset Decommissioning in Oil & Gas: Transforming Business

Asset intensive organizations like Oil and Gas have their own industry specific challenges when it com...
Sponsored by

Squeezing the Green: How to Cut Petroleum Downstream Costs and Optimize Processing Efficiencies with Enterprise Project Portfolio Management Solutions

As the downstream petroleum industry grapples with change in every sector and at every level, includin...
Sponsored by

7 Steps to Improve Oil & Gas Asset Decommissioning

Global competition and volatile markets are creating a challenging business climate for project based ...
Sponsored by

The impact of aging infrastructure in process manufacturing industries

Process manufacturing companies in the oil and gas, utilities, chemicals and natural resource industri...
Sponsored by

What is System Level Thermo-Fluid Analysis?

This paper will explain some of the fundamentals of System Level Thermo-Fluid Analysis and demonstrate...

Accurate Thermo-Fluid Simulation in Real Time Environments

The crux of any task undertaken in System Level Thermo-Fluid Analysis is striking a balance between ti...

6 ways for Energy, Chemical and Oil and Gas Companies to Avert the Impending Workforce Crisis

As many as half of the skilled workers in energy, chemical and oil & gas industries are quickly he...
Sponsored by
Available Webcasts

On Demand

Global LNG: Adjusting to New Realities

Fri, Mar 20, 2015

Oil & Gas Journal’s March 20, 2015, webcast will look at how global LNG trade will be affected over the next 12-24 months by falling crude oil prices and changing patterns and pressures of demand. Will US LNG production play a role in balancing markets? Or will it add to a growing global oversupply of LNG for markets remote from easier natural gas supply? Will new buyers with marginal credit, smaller requirements, or great need for flexibility begin to look attractive to suppliers? How will high-cost, mega-projects in Australia respond to new construction cost trends?

register:WEBCAST


US Midstream at a Crossroads

Fri, Mar 6, 2015

Oil & Gas Journal’s Mar. 6, 2015, webcast will focus on US midstream companies at an inflection point in their development in response to more than 6 years shale oil and gas production growth. Major infrastructure—gas plants, gathering systems, and takeaway pipelines—have been built. Major fractionation hubs have expanded. Given the radically changed pricing environment since mid-2014, where do processors go from here? What is the fate of large projects caught in mid-development? How to producers and processors cooperate to ensure a sustainable and profitable future? This event will serve to set the discussion table for the annual GPA Convention in San Antonio, Apr. 13-16, 2015.

This event is sponsored by Leidos Engineering.

register:WEBCAST


The Future of US Refining

Fri, Feb 6, 2015

Oil & Gas Journal’s Feb. 6, 2015, webcast will focus on the future of US refining as various forces this year conspire to pull the industry in different directions. Lower oil prices generally reduce feedstock costs, but they have also lowered refiners’ returns, as 2015 begins with refined products priced at lows not seen in years. If lower per-barrel crude prices dampen production of lighter crudes among shale plays, what will happen to refiners’ plans to export more barrels of lighter crudes? And as always, refiners will be affected by government regulations, particularly those that suppress demand, increase costs, or limit access to markets or supply.

register:WEBCAST


Oil & Gas Journal’s Forecast & Review/Worldwide Pipeline Construction 2015

Fri, Jan 30, 2015

The  Forecast & Review/Worldwide Pipeline Construction 2015 Webcast will address Oil & Gas Journal’s outlooks for the oil market and pipeline construction in a year of turbulence. Based on two annual special reports, the webcast will be presented by OGJ Editor Bob Tippee and OGJ Managing Editor-Technology Chris Smith.
The Forecast & Review portion of the webcast will identify forces underlying the collapse in crude oil prices and assess prospects for changes essential to recovery—all in the context of geopolitical pressures buffeting the market.

register:WEBCAST


Emerson Micro Motion Videos

Careers at TOTAL

Careers at TOTAL - Videos

More than 600 job openings are now online, watch videos and learn more!

 

Click Here to Watch

Other Oil & Gas Industry Jobs

Search More Job Listings >>
Stay Connected