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06/01/2010 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oil Spill Response: If Relief Well Drilling Is Only Guaranteed Option, Why Not Make It Mandatory? [UPDATE]

My layman's read of the ongoing Top Kill/Hot Tap/Top Hat/Hat Kill/Top Tap Kill efforts is that these are mainly hoped-for quick fixes, intended to alleviate the massive flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico ahead of the digging of a relief well. A relief well -- which would be the Daniel Plainview "drink your milkshake" solution to the crisis -- seems to be the one thing to guarantee the stoppage of the spill. But the problem is one of time: while the White House reports that BP's relief well efforts are proceeding ahead of schedule, it's generally presumed that the first of two planned relief wells won't be operational until August.

Which raises an interesting question: why not make relief wells a required fail-safe to drilling? Why not make relief well construction mandatory in advance of any drilling operation? Well, I'm sure that's crazy talk! Only an insane government would require the BPs of the world to drill relief wells alongside their main wells, right?

Wait, what's that, Sarabeth Guthberg of 1115.org?

Incidentally, did you know that in Canada, when oil companies drill in the environmentally sensitive Arctic region, they are required to drill a relief well right along with the main well? Such a requirement would allow an instant reaction to disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon spill.

What the what ?

Critics say an oil blowout in the Canadian Arctic would be much worse than the current Gulf disaster, given the ice, severe weather conditions and the lack of infrastructure in one of the world's most remote regions.

In 2008, BP paid C$1.2 billion ($1.8 billion) for rights to explore three parcels in Canada's Beaufort Sea, north of the Arctic Circle.

It has yet to announce plans to drill in the region but shortly before the U.S. disaster, BP and other oil companies urged Canadian regulators to drop a requirement stipulating that companies operating in the Arctic had to drill relief wells in the same season as the primary well.

[Canadian MP Nathan] Cullen argued the companies had made this request because drilling a relief well within the required time limit would be too expensive, given the difficult Arctic conditions.

"It's not a question of cost," said [President of BP Canada Anne] Drinkwater.

"Your submission does say it's a question of cost. ... You cite money because you're concerned about money," retorted Cullen, reading from a BP document filed with the NEB, then listing recent disasters BP had been involved in.

Drinkwater -- who said BP was not rejecting the option of a relief well -- declined to answer reporters' questions following the hearing.

President Obama said today that if the current laws are not up to the task of preventing future disasters, "the laws must change." But obviously, this level of oil safety fail-safes is totally socialist, right?

UPDATE: Sarabeth sends along a couple of new clarifications:

• Canadian regulations about relief wells are not quite as simple as the Reuters story suggested.
• Oil companies do not actually have to drill relief wells in advance. Rather, in order to get a drilling permit they have to satisfy the National Energy Board that they have the capability to drill a relief well the same season as the exploratory well.

She goes on to surmise that this means that this "provision probably does not have any legal teeth," and adds:

Thus, the effectiveness of the provision comes entirely from the independence and integrity with which government regulators enforce it up front, before a drilling permit is issued. We must, therefore, reluctantly conclude that such a provision probably wouldn't be very useful in the US.

Good to know. Nevertheless, if it turns out that only relief well drilling can stop this oil spill, serious consideration should be given to how the process can be expedited.

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