BP Rises from the Ashes: Feds Approve Plan for British Oil Giant to Drill Four New Wells in Gulf of Mexico


In a stunning turnaround, our federal government has approved a plan for BP to drill four new deep-water wells in the Gulf of Mexico – just 17 months after the British oil giant’s negligence triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Even as Gulf Coast residents continue to limp toward recovery, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has opened the door to another disaster, turning a blind eye toward the egregious safety lapses and reckless cost-cutting efforts that led to last year’s 200-million-gallon spill.

Perhaps our federal regulators are suffering from (selective) amnesia, but down here on the Gulf Coast, we haven’t forgotten the permissive regulatory climate that got us into this mess. The White House is playing Russian roulette with offshore drilling, putting the environment and American livelihoods in jeopardy.

Here’s how Politico covered the development in an Oct. 21 report:

The approval by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is a major milestone for the British oil giant – and perhaps for drilling companies in general, as they have had to meet new federal offshore drilling safety and environmental standards since the disaster.

… The company is proposing to drill up to four wells in the Gulf in areas that it acquired in lease sales in 1997 and 2003. The sites are 192 miles from the Louisiana coast and in waters deeper than the company’s doomed Macondo well, which sparked the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

The proposed wells range from 6,019 feet to 6,034 feet of water depth. The Macondo well was in waters about 5,000 feet deep when it ruptured and caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that claimed the lives of 11 workers.

Federal approval of BP’s new drilling plan has critics up in arms, including members of Congress, who (like me) believe this move is recklessly premature. Based on its abysmal safety record, BP cannot be trusted to drill safely on its own, and new comprehensive safety legislation that would force the issue is stalled in Congress. We should also consider the fact that BP hasn’t paid the pollution fines tied to last year’s spill nor has it compensated victims suing the company for damages. Does that sound to you like we’re ready to move on?

More from the Politico report:

Critics have questioned whether BP should be allowed to drill in new areas so soon after last year’s disaster. At an Oct. 13 hearing, House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Ed Markey (D-Mass.) questioned specifically whether the company should be part of a planned lease sale by Interior in the western Gulf in December. That lease sale would be the first since the spill.

Markey issued a statement Friday calling the approval of the exploration plan premature.

“Comprehensive safety legislation hasn’t passed Congress, and BP hasn’t paid the fines they owe for their spill, yet BP is being given back the keys to drill in the Gulf,” Markey said. “The major investigations into the BP oil spill disaster are now complete and it is time to assess and levy the fines against BP for its damage to the environment and economy of the Gulf and pass comprehensive drilling safety legislation in Congress.”

It’s telling that BP’s defenders, who fall into the “few and far between” bucket, come from inside our federal government. Here’s what BOEM Director Michael Bromwich had to say when asked about BP’s many, well-documented safety failures:

“They (BP) don’t have a deeply flawed record offshore. And so the question is do you administer the administrative death penalty based on one incident. And we’ve concluded, I’ve concluded, that that’s not appropriate in these circumstances. In part you make that judgment on how they respond afterwards.”

Again, it may be that everybody at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management suffers from amnesia. But those of us living in the real world are painfully familiar with BP’s corporate culture of putting profits over people and the environment – a dangerous situation that culminated in last year’s disaster. Here’s a scratch-the-surface look at BP’s atrocious safety record, courtesy of ABC News (June 2010):

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) statistics show BP posted 760 “egregious, willful” safety violations – while Sunoco and Conoco-Phillips each had eight, Citgo had two and Exxon had one comparable citation.

In two separate disasters prior to the Deepwater Horizon, 30 BP workers were killed and hundreds have been seriously injured.

In the last three years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, BP refineries in Ohio and Texas accounted for 97 percent of the “egregious, willful” violations handed out by OSHA.

In 2007, a BP pipeline spewed 200,000 gallons of crude into the pristine Alaskan wilderness. The oil giant was fined $16 million.

So despite Mr. Bromwich’s hollow defense, it’s clear BP is a very slow learner – and monstrously “safety challenged.” No amount of federal coddling will change that fact.

Research bears out that there is absolutely nothing in BP’s past performance record that would indicate the oil giant is ready to drill safely in the Gulf of Mexico. And Congress appears incapable of passing meaningful safety legislation to ensure the protection of our environment and our livelihoods. Part of the process of keeping oil companies in line must be to provide adequate regulatory staff to address offshore issues – a serious concern Mr. Bromwich has cited in the past. “We have barely 60 inspectors to cover 3,000-plus facilities in the Gulf of Mexico,” Bromwich said. “If it weren’t so troubling, it would be laughable.”

And consider this from an April 17, 2011, New York Times article:

Even those who run the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service concede that it will be years before they can establish a robust regulatory regime able to minimize the risks to workers and the environment while still allowing exploration offshore.

So we’ve got a reckless oil company coupled with an anemic regulatory structure. That’s not a reassuring combination. Moving ahead with this new drilling plan is madness, pure and simple – and Mr. Bromwich, not to mention the entire Gulf Coast, may very well live to regret it. Some of us already do.

Read the Politico report in its entirety here: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1011/66560.html#ixzz1bRqNeaql

Read my previous post on how the feds are playing Russian roulette with offshore drilling: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/as-oil-%E2%80%93-both-old-and-new-%E2%80%93-fouls-gulf-waters-and-beaches-feds-open-additional-20-million-acres-to-offshore-drilling

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved


Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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