White House lifts Gulf of Mexico deepwater oil drilling ban

Brown Pelicans and oil platformTuesday U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced, “We have decided it is now appropriate to lift the suspension on deepwater drilling for those operators that are able to clear the higher bar that we have set”.

The new rules, which were laid out by the department Salazar oversees two weeks ago, are meant to tighten companies’ obligations on drilling and workplace safety, well [site] containment and spill response, he said.  This on the heals of the draft report by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

As imagined the announcement was met with the same mix of reaction that has surrounded the entire disaster – if oil is part of your diet (not olive in origin) then this is good, but not good enough, if the only oil worth discussing on this planet comes from olives then the moratorium was bad, but this is worse:

  • “pure politics of the most cynical kind.” and “irresponsible to say the least, reckless at worst,” said Greenpeace USA director Phil Radford.
  • “a step in the right direction.” followed by a request for acceleration of the permitting process came from Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu.

What changes?

For clarity sake it needs to be pointed out that the May Moratorium only impacted “deepwater drilling” in the Gulf of Mexico.  By definition (although they vary a bit) that includes 33 well sites drilling at a seafloor depth of 1,000 feet or deeper in the Gulf of Mexico under U.S. jurisdiction.  Deepwater drilling is done in two basic fashions, both included in the May Moratorium, one is mobile deepwater drilling rigs: semi-submersible drilling rigs and the other drillships which can be fixed to a rig or platform.  According to NOAA there are nearly 4,000 platforms off of the coast of TX, LA, MS, & AL*.  An Associated Press investigation uncovered particular concern with 3,500 of those, the neglected wells — those characterized in federal government records as “temporarily abandoned.”  The other some 500 operations were not restricted under the May Moratorium.

The AP investigation went on to reveal, according to nola.com article, that:

Despite warnings of leaks, government and industry officials have never bothered to assess the extent of the problem, according to an extensive AP review of records and regulations.

That means no one really knows how many abandoned wells are leaking — and how badly.

The AP documented an extensive history of warnings about environmental dangers related to abandoned wells:

— The General Accountability Office, which investigates for Congress, warned as early as 1994 that leaks from offshore abandoned wells could cause an “environmental disaster,” killing fish, shellfish, mammals and plants. In a lengthy report, GAO pressed for inspections of abandonment jobs, but nothing came of the recommendation.

— A 2006 Environmental Protection Agency report took notice of the overall issue regarding wells on land: “Historically, well abandonment and plugging have generally not been properly planned, designed and executed.” State officials say many leaks come from wells abandoned in recent decades, when rules supposedly dictated plugging procedures. And repairs are so routine that terms have been coined to describe the work: “replugging” or the “re-abandonment.”

— A GAO report in 1989 provided a foreboding prognosis about the health of the country’s inland oil and gas wells. The watchdog agency quoted EPA data estimating that up to 17 percent of the nation’s wells on land had been improperly plugged. If that percentage applies to offshore wells, there could be 4,600 badly plugged wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone.

— According to a 2001 study commissioned by MMS, agency officials were “concerned that some abandoned oil wells in the Gulf may be leaking crude oil.” But nothing came of that warning either.

That article was published on July 10, 2010 which raises the question, What has Ken Salazar learned and put into action in the last couple of months that no one including the GOA has been able to sort out since at least 1994?

What hasn’t changed are the facts.  On April 20th, 2010 the BP Macondo Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded to cause the world’s greatest human-caused environmental disaster.  Six months later no one has determine the causes of the explosion, which killed 11 workers and released 4.4 million barrels(185 million gallons) of oil into Gulf waters.  And without a comprehensive national energy plan guiding this country into the future, moratorium or not, we are no closer to real answers about how we obtain, use and sustain our energy on this planet than we were April 19th, 2010.

*you can debate until you are blue in the face, wells, rigs and drill-sites, verses and/or per platform (see what’s a platform) – those are NOAA’s numbers not mine – save your email breath.

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