NEW ORLEANS – With everything Big Oil and the government have learned in the year since the Gulf of Mexico disaster, could it happen again? Absolutely, according to an Associated Press examination of the industry and interviews with experts on the perils of deep-sea drilling.
The government has given the OK for oil exploration in treacherously deep waters to resume, saying it is confident such drilling can be done safely. The industry has given similar assurances. But there are still serious questions in some quarters about whether the lessons of the BP oil spill have been applied.
The industry “is ill-prepared at the least,” said Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor specializing in accidents involving high-risk technologies. “I have seen no evidence that they have marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill. I don’t think they have found ways to change the corporate culture sufficiently to prevent future accidents.”
He added: “There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong that major spills are unavoidable.”
The worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history began with an explosion April 20, 2010, that killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig. About 200 million gallons of crude spewed from the well a mile beneath the sea.
Since then, new drilling rules have been imposed, a high-tech system for capping a blown-out well and containing the oil has been built, and regulators have taken steps to ramp up oversight of the industry.
But deep-sea drilling remains highly risky. The effectiveness of the much-touted containment system is being questioned because it hasn’t been tested on the sea floor. A design flaw in the blowout preventers widely used across the industry has been identified but not corrected. And regulators are allowing companies to obtain drilling permits before approving their updated oil-spill response plans.
After a months-long moratorium, the Obama administration resumed issuing drilling permits earlier this year.
A petroleum industry group is creating a center for offshore safety in Houston to address management practices and improve industry communication. And the agency that oversees offshore drilling now bars inspectors from regulating a company that employs a family member or friend. Also, inspectors who join the agency from the oil industry cannot perform inspections of their former employers for two years.
BP says it is poised to become a much safer company. It ousted several key figures during the disaster – including CEO Tony Hayward – and created a powerful unit to police company safety.
Whether any of that translates into better protection remains to be seen.
“I’m not an oddsmaker, but I would say in the next five years we should have at least one major blowout,” Perrow said. “Even if everybody tries very hard, there is going to be an accident caused by cost-cutting and pressure on workers.”
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, oil producers including BP were criticized for errors in their federally required oil-spill response plans, such as severely underestimating the time it takes oil to reach shore.
Several of the biggest oil producers told the AP they have updated their response plans but are still waiting for them to be approved. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement said it is operating under a 2002 federal regulation that allows two years to approve such plans. In the meantime, companies are allowed to proceed with their drilling applications and obtain permits as long as they certify in writing that they can handle a spill, said agency spokeswoman Eileen Angelico.
The agency “is taking the oil companies’ word for it that they can handle a spill,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s leading environmental groups. “This is the same kind of deference to claimed oil company expertise that led directly to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.”