One year after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the government is slowly handing out new permits to allow deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico -- a move oil industry insiders say is a safe one.
“We’ve drilled 1,298 wells in the deep-water of the Gulf of Mexico, 2,500 wells worldwide, we’ve drilled 30,000-plus wells in the shallow water of the Gulf of Mexico, ” said Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs. “We have the technology to drill safe.”
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010, forced a reported 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, leading to a deep-water drilling moratorium. So, selling safe drilling to coastal communities still cleaning oil out of their sensitive wetlands has been anything but easy. The images of oil-soaked birds and beaches will never fade from the memories of those who live and work along the Gulf Coast.
“It's not a matter of if there’s another accident, it's a matter of when, " said Gulf Restoration Network Director Aaron Viles. “They haven’t really learned a significant lesson here and they aren’t really better prepared to respond to another accident.”
According to government statistics, from 2006-2010, there have been 40 spills in the Gulf of Mexico of 50 barrels or more. No spills that large have occurred this year, but if a spill does occur, industry officials say they’re ready.
“We have a response capability unlike anything ever before to address these sorts of events, ” said Cameron Wallace, with Houston-based Helix Energy Solutions Group. “So I really do feel like the industry is ready to operate and respond responsibly in the event of another accident.”
Following last year’s BP spill, the government outlined new regulations and increased inspections.
“These are procedures that the industry also supplied information on and said, yes, this would help, ” Briggs added.
Perhaps the biggest change, according to the Helix Group, is having a predetermined plan of how to control a spill response, utilizing several oil companies and their particular strengths.
“We need to do more at the beginning, before the well gets drilled, before the rigs go out, to determine how we will react in the event of another emergency, ” said Wallace. “There’s no more on the fly, deciding what technologies are used or how to use them.”
“What the BP disaster taught us is they have all the technology in the world to get the oil, but they don’t have the appropriate technology to make it safe, ”said Louisiana Bucket Brigade Director Anne Rolfes. “The problem with drilling in the Gulf is that it’s still not safe.”
The Helix Group and another consortium, led by Exxon-Mobil, have modified containment systems that can kill a well or redirect oil and gas up to the surface. The Helix well cap has already been recognized in six drilling permits issued in the Gulf so far.
“We are in a road of progress, but we’re not at a point, nor will we ever be, where we can say that we have achieved the safest possible oil and gas drilling in America’s oceans, ” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “We have to make sure that the industry as a whole does not have the same sense of complacency that it had before the Macondo Well spill.”