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Deepwater Horizon 2.0? Why It Can Happen Again

It’s been one year since a the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven workers and ultimately flooding the surrounding sea with over 200 million gallons of oil in the worst environmental disaster in American history.            

Confusion reigned while oil gushed from the damaged rig, as engineers tried to stop the flow with everything from a giant underwater dome to thousands of golf balls. But there was one thing nearly everybody agreed upon—stronger regulation of offshore drilling was needed, to both prevent leaks and contain the damage if they did occur.

President Barack Obama declared that “we’re going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards,” and his administration imposed an offshore drilling moratorium until safety protocols could be updated. Polls found over 70 percent of Americans favored stronger regulation of oil exploration. Even some Republicans agreed—Senator Lindsey Graham said he wanted to “find out what happened in the gulf and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The offshore drilling moratorium was lifted in October. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that a new “gold standard” of safety measures was in place, and the first permit for offshore drilling was issued in February—to a company partially owned by BP. Nineteen permits have been issued since.

In his energy speech late last month, Obama assured the public these new leases require maximum safety. “What we learned from [the Deepwater] disaster helped us put in place smarter standards of safety and responsibility,” he said. “For example, if you‘re going to drill in deepwater, you‘ve got to prove before you start drilling that you can actually contain an underwater spill. That‘s just common sense.”

There’s just one problem—that’s not at all true. Some of the same fundamental engineering failures that created the gulf oil spill are still in place, and may not be addressed any time soon.

On the Deepwater Horizon rig, a blowout preventer should have kept oil from spilling into the ocean after the initial explosion, but it failed. A government-backed forensic study of the blowout preventer failure released last month found that the failure was not an aberration but rather a product of a basic design flaw. One critical part of the blowout preventer—“shear rams,” a pair of blades designed to cut through pipe and seal an oil well off in an emergency—functioned properly, but failed to completely seal the well. The report found a second pair of shear rams is probably needed to ensure wells are sealed in an emergency.

But the Senate killed a bill requiring that second set of shears last year. The Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEMRE), which issues offshore drilling permits, has also declined to require a second set of shear rams “because of the time and costs associated with retrofitting the entire industry's inventory.”

The forensic report’s authors strongly criticized this failure to have a second set of shear rams, since the first set clearly doesn’t always do enough to stop leaks. "It feels like your fail-safe equipment shouldn't require optimal conditions to work," one researcher told the Houston Chronicle, in a notable understatement.

So contrary to Obama’s assertion that “you‘ve got to prove before you start drilling that you can actually contain an underwater spill,” the blowout preventers currently being used for new and existing offshore drilling are the exact same faulty models that couldn’t stop the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Rachel Maddow--who has been aggressively following the persistent blowout preventer problems—interviewed BOEMRE director Michael Bromwich this week about the problems, and his answers hardly inspired confidence. When confronted with the continuing blowout preventer problems, Bromwich, a former prosecutor with no engineering or energy experience, said that “no one in our agency, and certainly not me, has ever suggested that these are failsafe devices.” So much for the new “gold standard” of safety.

Bromwich claimed that other new safety measures could still limit leakage to seventeen days—something he acknowledged is “not fabulous, but...a lot better than [the] 87 days” it took to stop the Deepwater Horizon leak. Even if that’s true, considering that as many as 3.4 million gallons of oil per day spilled from Deepwater Horizon at the height of the crisis, a seventeen-day leak would still create a catastrophic environmental problem. After the interview, Maddow said she has “never been more freaked out about this story and about these permits.”

Beyond the issue of shear rams, deeper regulatory issues remain, calling into further question whether offshore drilling permits should continue to be issued. Under the Bush admistration, BOEMRE was known as the Minerals Management Service, and was beset by widespread corruption and bribery. (Remember the prostitutes provided by oil companies to MMS officials?) William K. Reilly, a former administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, told the New York Times that the new organization under Bromwich is better than Bush’s MMS, but still falls far short of what is needed. “They changed the name, but all the people are the same,” Reilly said. “It’s embarrassing.”

The Interior Department is now “examining” improvements to the shear systems, and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) is calling for a similar Congressional examination. It’s possible the safety measures will be strengthened—but if another leak occurs in the meantime, it’s likely the government will once again be left scrambling for large inventories of golf balls.

For more on the BP oil spill from The Nation, see:
The editors, “There Will Be Blood
Naomi Klein, “A Hole in the World” and “The Search for BP's Oil
Christopher Hayes, “BP: Beyond Punishment” and “The Breakdown: What Is the True Cost of BP's Oil Spill?
Abe Louise Young, “BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle
Mark Hertsgaard, “Kicking the Oil Habit
Raj Patel, “We Have Yet to See the Biggest Costs of the BP Spill

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