What’s the greatest threat to the future of offshore oil and gas drilling in the United States? The debate has focused largely on economic issues: need, cost and revenue sharing. But what seems most ominous is the spread of a bad idea: the view that safety doesn’t matter to the oil and gas industry when it comes to offshore drilling.
In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, which killed 11 offshore workers and produced a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil and gas industry responded appropriately, creating the Center for Offshore Safety and other groups with the expertise and technology to provide quick responses in the event of an emergency.
The industry also developed or strengthened 100 standards covering exploratory drilling and production of oil and gas. These rules covered all aspects of offshore operations, everything from well design and blowout prevention to safety and environmental management, and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has cited 96 of them in its offshore regulations. And by doing the right thing — applying the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon accident — the industry has implemented tougher safety standards that will undoubtedly prevent similar disasters in the future.
Now, however, demands that the industry stop oil and gas drilling altogether have been proliferating in environmental forums, letters to the editor and state legislatures. Indeed, the idea that the country could get by without oil and gas has become the accepted wisdom among many environmentalists. Crazy as it may sound, there is a movement around the country to keep oil and gas in the ground.
The perceived wisdom underlying the debate about offshore drilling has been that the industry sees safety in conflict with the need for increased oil and gas production. Everyone seems to think that safeguards impede growth in production. This assumption is badly flawed. Years of research indicate that complying with standards for acceptable drilling is better for oil and gas companies and costs less in the long run than the kind of unsafe practices that were recently spotlighted in the surprise inspections that the Interior Department conducted on oil and gas platforms and drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil and gas industry and the American public would be better served if the Interior Department rejected efforts by some independent offshore drillers to roll back safety regulations and instead strengthen the rules and conduct more surprise inspections. Repeat offenders need to be fined heavily and, in some cases, have their licenses lifted. How are BSEE inspectors supposed to prevent workers from being killed or seriously injured in accidents involving giant cranes used to lift men and equipment on platforms and drilling rigs if not through enforcement?
It is essential that all oil and gas operators — not just the major companies — recognize that we cannot ensure safety and usher in an expansion of offshore drilling in untapped coastal areas without enforcement of rules governing safety. From the perspective of one who has taught petroleum engineering for 40 years, placed over a thousand graduates in jobs in the oil and gas business, and as the father of a petroleum engineer working on a deepwater drillship in the Gulf of Mexico for a major oil company, safety is and has been my utmost concern.
The speed with which a more assertive enforcement policy can deliver substantial improvements in offshore safety argues for a much more stimulative policy that includes using peer pressure to bring recalcitrant operators in line. Such a policy would signal the importance of adhering to the industry’s own safety standards.
There is no credible way to ensure compliance with government safety regulations without changing the way the rules are enforced. That is why it is so heartening to see surprise inspections being used in tandem with a risk-based inspection program aimed at focusing resources on those operators and facilities that need the most attention. The economic and environmental benefits of offshore safety are huge.
Robert W. Chase is an emeritus professor of petroleum engineering at Marietta College and serves on the board of directors of Producers Service Corp. in Zanesville, Ohio, and the Settlers Bank in Marietta, Ohio.
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