End of drilling moratorium won’t bring immediate activity in the Gulf


Even when the moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling ends, it won’t mean an immediate restart of operations in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government’s chief oil and gas regulator said Monday.

“You won’t see drilling the next day, or even the next week,” Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, told the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Bromwich said he will issue a report later this week on whether the moratorium, now slated to end Nov. 30, can end early.

Bromwich said it may take time, as it has with shallow-water drillers not officially covered by the moratorium, for companies to develop and win approval for their drilling plans. He said federal regulators say drilling can start again once a response plan dealing with a “worst-case scenario spill” has been prepared. He called this justifiable.

Some of the delay is because the industry needs time to develop such plans, but Bromwich acknowledged that his department needs to increase staffing and training to conduct the kind of oversight that is necessary to assure safe operations.

Commission members expect the administration to end the deepwater moratorium before thethe current deadline.

“I would have expected it would have come off by now,” said William Reilly, co-chairman of the seven-member oil spill commission.

Earlier in the hearing, Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the BP response, responded to commission questions about early oil flow rates that significantly under estimated the extend of the spill, the biggest in U.S. history.

Those low estimates, Allen said, didn’t affect the response because the Obama administration had always assumed it was dealing with a major catastrophe.

But commission members were skeptical.

“It’s a bit like Custer,” said Bob Graham, the former Florida Democratic senator who serves with Reilly as co-chairman. “He underestimated the number of Indians that were going to be on the other side of the hill and he paid the ultimate price.”

At the very least, the low flow estimates, which came as Americans were watching oil pouring out of the BP well from underwater cameras, caused the public to lose confidence in the government and BP pronouncements about the extent of damage, Graham said.

Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed that getting the flow estimates right was important. He said that his agency, where it typically takes two years to get approval to buy a new computer monitor, immediately got the OKto bring in advanced monitoring devices and bring back experts from retirement as soon as the agency developed a higher flow estimate than BP, but still much lower than the actual amounts flowing into the Gulf.

Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University oceanography professor, told the commission he disagreed with statements from BP and the federal government that most of the oil from the spill has disappeared.

“In my scientific opinion, the bulk of this material was dispersed in surface layers, from which about one-third evaporated and 10 percent was removed by burning or skimming,” MacDonald said.

“An additional 10 percent was chemically dispersed. The remaining fraction — over 50 percent of the total discharge — is a highly durable material that resists further dissipation. Much of it is now buried in marine and coastal sediments.”

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who drew national media coverage for his outspoken criticism of the federal and BP response to the oil spill, told the commission little has changed. “I’m still angry,” he said. “To this day, I still can’t tell you who is in charge” of recovery and restoration operations.

Allen defended the federal response, but admitted that the administration might have been better prepared if key administration officials had attended a mock oil spill exercise last March — one month before the BP accident.

Allen did recommend one change in the 1990 oil spill recovery act, suggesting the appointment of an independent official to work directly with the responsible company and the national incident commander. Still, he disputed criticism that BP was needlessly delaying the requisition of needed equipment such as boom and skimmers to save money.

The biggest problems were inadequate supplies and, once secured, getting them delivered to where they were most needed, said Allen, who is scheduled to leave his post Friday.

Graham said federal officials appeared at times too deferential to BP, citing testimony about investigators from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that were denied access to data that might have allowed it to make an earlier assessment of the spill.

The commission, appointed by President Barack Obama to report on the causes of the BP disaster and to recommend changes in government and industry policies, is likely be critical of key facets of the response.

Reilly said Monday he was “amazed and disappointed” that the nation’s ability to respond to a spill hasn’t evolved much since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which, he helped oversee as Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

The commission is scheduled to hold another full-day hearing today. Its report on the BP spill is due in January.

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