EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: Is off-shore drilling any safer for the environment today given lessons learned from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?- Leslie Jackson, Bern, NC
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010 resulted in 11 lost lives and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Various failures resulted in the loss of well control, an explosion, fire and an ongoing spill. Five years later, the U.S. Department of the Interior reports that there are more floating deepwater drilling rigs working in the Gulf of Mexico today than prior to that devastating spill, and drilling activity is only expected to steadily grow.
In light of this, and in response to the findings of investigations into the tragedy, the Interior Department announced a proposal earlier this year that will encompass “the most ambitious reform agenda in the Department’s history to strengthen, update and modernize offshore energy regulations.”
Proposed regulations include enhanced industry standards for blowout prevention technologies and reforms in well design, well control, casing, cementing and subsea containment. U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Brian Salerno noted that new regulations would also provide oversight of equipment performance and operations through third party verification and real-time monitoring viewed onshore. “Both industry and government have taken important strides to better protect human lives and the environment from oil spills, and these proposed measures are designed to further build on critical lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and to ensure that offshore operations are safe,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
While the Interior Department has yet to finalize its proposed regulations, this month the BSEE gave Shell Oil approval for two Applications for Permits to Drill (APD) to conduct limited exploratory drilling in the untouched waters of the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska’s northwest coast. The Chukchi provides nutrients and pristine habitat for a multitude of organisms, says the U.S. Audubon Society, ranging from walruses, ice seals and whales to millions of seabirds and the top predator mammal, the polar bear.
“Without question, activities conducted offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards,” Salerno said. “Without the required well-control system in place, Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones.”
Shell will be limited to drilling only the top sections of wells and barred from drilling into oil-bearing zones until they have their capping stack, equipment placed over a well in the event of a blowout, on site. Shell’s capping stack is currently on the M/V Fennica icebreaker ship where it recetnly had to stopover in Portland, Oregon for repairs to its hull after an underwater collision. The vessel has since been deemed capable of deployment in the Chukchi Sea. If Shell is able to satisfy the capping stack requirement, the company may submit an Application for Permit to Modify the APDs and request to drill into oil-bearing zones.
Just recently, Greenpeace activists suspended themselves from St. John’s Bridge in Portland to create a “human barricade” in an effort to prevent the M/V Fennica from departing to Alaskan waters. Greenpeace’s executive director Annie Leonard said that the activists were prepared to stay suspended from St. John’s Bridge for as long as it took to save the Arctic. The effort delayed the icebreaker’s departure, but most environmentalists aren’t holding their breath that it will stop Shell from their adventure in the Arctic.
Image credit: backbone campaign, courtesy flickr