Offshore ministerial forum emphasizes prompt response to spills

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 14 -- Immediate access to technology, equipment, and personnel to promptly cap and contain offshore crude oil spills is essential, participants generally agreed during a day-long international forum at the US Department of the Interior. Governments and the oil and gas industry should be ready to spend money to apply lessons learned from spills if they don’t want to be caught unprepared in the future, several panelists maintained.

Technologies were developed in response to the Apr. 20, 2010, Macondo well accident and subsequent oil spill which ultimately succeeded, but there is no reason for government regulators and industry to grow complacent, US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement Director Michael R. Bromwich said.

“It’s very obvious there’s continued interest in developing resources beneath the world’s oceans,” added US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar, who convened the Apr. 14 forum that attracted officials from 12 foreign countries and the European Union. “I don’t want us to duplicate what’s already going on, but I would like us to consider whether we need a focus at the ministerial level on safe offshore oil and gas drilling.”

Officials from other countries as well as the US emphasized the importance of having the technology, equipment, and personnel ready. Martin Hoffman, Australia’s deputy secretary of resources, energy, and tourism, said there was very little, if any, planning or awareness that a situation may arise or need to be handled before the Montara offshore well blew out there in 2009.

“About half the time the well was out of control was taken up before relief well drilling operations started working,” he said. “This was a remote area where rigs were very far away and did not have the sort of density you have in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Local solutions
British offshore producers have determined that having a capping and containment system that could be deployed immediately is essential where they operate, according to Malcolm Webb, chief executive of industry trade association Oil & Gas UK.

“Concentration on physical containment or capture equipment is no doubt the right response in basins such as the Gulf of Mexico. We in the UK have decided that capping has to be our first choice,” he said. “That does not mean that international standards can’t be developed. But whatever system is used, it works best if it’s local and if access is available to all participants in the industry.”

Former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Peter K. Reilly, who co-chaired US President Barack Obama’s independent oil spill commission, said it was striking, as its investigation proceeded, how little the industry had invested in spill containment technology since the 1989 grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, especially compared to its outlays for technology to find and produce crude in increasingly deeper waters.

“Liability is a broader issue,” he continued. “We have a $75 million liability limit which was established under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act that obviously is inadequate. There are liabilities outside OPA, principally involving states. The commission recommended increasing the liability cap but did not settle on an amount because of our ignorance about the insurance industry, but principally out of concern for not pricing independents out of operating in the gulf.”

Others noted that while technology developed following the Macondo accident was impressive, the response still took too long. Thomas Hunter, who helped lead the science team that worked with BP, the well’s operator, on containment issues and who now chairs DOI’s new Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee, said both industry and government were unprepared, containment technology existed but was not readily available, information to make key decisions was not available on a timely basis, and the government’s command-and-control system was not fully in place.

“Equipment and operations can be established to significantly reduce releases if a blowout occurs,” he said. “The response to this spill proved that. We took 87 days. It should take 7-10 days.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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