Past lessons unlearned, Gulf drilling is at all-time high


I guess this falls in the category of “now they tell us,” but BP essentially admitted in court this week that the 2010 oil-spill disaster might have been much less worse if the company had taken a simple safety precaution ahead of time:

If BP already had a capping stack of the type it eventually used to close the erupting oil well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it could have ended the crisis sooner, said the company’s leader in its campaign to control the well, during an ongoing federal trial in New Orleans on Wednesday.

Company executive James Dupree said storing such backup equipment is something BP and other oil companies now do, in the aftermath of the 2010 disaster.

While Dupree agreed under questioning by lawyer Brian Barr, who represents plaintiffs against BP, that the technology existed to build new capping stacks that could be lowered atop undersea gushers, he said one with the exact specifications needed for the wayward Macondo well did not exist and required work to configure.

“On the source control side, we didn’t have the preparations that we have today,” Dupree said.

“Those are preparations you could have had?” asked Barr. “Had we had the foresight, we could have had them,” Dupree responded. “That’s why we had to engineer so many things on the fly,” he said.

This is enlightening to read — but also frustrating. For one thing, I had joined with other environmentalists at the height of the crisis to warn that the “solution” that BP was initially trying, the so-called “top kill,” was doomed to fail, which it did. More importantly, it’s good to know that oil companies are now voluntarily stocking these back-up blowout preventers, just in case — but these are the kind of safety measures that should be required by law. Instead, Congress and the federal government have utterly failed to do what most observers expected them to do in the wake of a 5-million barrel oil spill — pass comprehensive laws and regulations aimed at ensuring something like that never happens again.

Instead, the feds have been busy — issuing new permits to drill as fast as they can:

 In October 2010, the Obama administration lifted its five-month ban on deepwater drilling in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico following BP (BP)‘s disastrous oil spill. Three years later, global oil companies are flocking back to the deepest waters of the Gulf, snatching up oil leases and drilling permits at a record level.

The number of drilling permits issued in the U.S. Gulf reached a record 807 on Sept. 26, according to a new report by Bloomberg Industries, an increase of more than 14 percent over the same period last year. According to oil-services company Baker Hughes (BHI), there were 62 rigs operating in the Gulf as of Sept. 27, more than at any time in four years. Rig counts fell dramatically following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010, dwindling to a dozen within three months of the disaster.

“The Gulf of Mexico is definitely back,” says Julius Walker, an energy markets strategist at UBS Securities. “There’s been so much focus on the onshore shale boom, a lot of people have forgotten about the Gulf.”

That’s a good way of putting it, that a lot of people have forgotten about the Gulf  (although apparently not BP, which — the article notes — has received 17 new drilling permits in 2012 and so far in 2013). This is the great underreported energy story of our time, that the giddiness over increased U.S. fuel production has come as a result of extreme drilling in places of great risk, like a mile or more under the Gulf of Mexico. Every time I read about the expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf, I think of two things: 1) Are we do everything we can to ensure that the process is safe and 2) how stupid will we feel if there’s another Deepwater Horizon-sized disaster?

To learn more about BP’s lack of safety precautions before the 2010 spill, please read:

For coverage in Business Week about the surge in offshore drilling permits, check out:

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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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