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Is the Drilling Moratorium Really Long Enough? No, Not Really

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Shortly after the BP's Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well blew out, President Obama imposed a six month moratorium on deepwater drilling, pending conclusions and recommendations from investigations of the disaster that has once again put a laser beam on the fragility of our oil supply.  Howls from the industry immediately ensued, followed very quickly by Gulf states politicians, who are big recipients of oil industry campaign contributions.  Workers and contractors, who will be the ones most deeply affected, have, also understandably voiced their opposition.  Many analogies have been drawn (mostly misplaced), such as some proclaiming that when an airliner crashes, we don't stop flying.  It's just a guess, but I would posit that if an airline crash destroyed the economies of 4 states, most of those affected would have a very different attitude and scream for an immediate halt to flying airliners.  That's not the case here, however.

Setting aside obvious political posturing by the usual suspects, I understand the opposition to a pause in deepwater drilling.  I really do.  I also understand the hardship on deepwater workers and their families, especially the ones living in states whose economies are already (pardon the pun) under water.  However, the economic loss to these families can be mitigated by getting BP to pay the bill here, since they are the guilty party, and a combination of federal, state, and local programs can help get everyone through this period.  We simply need to make the most of this time; I can't, in good conscience, argue to put workers back out on floating drilling rigs in thousands of feet of water knowing that the safety systems in place are inadequate, and that most companies drilling in the deepwater couldn't (again, pardon the pun) weather a catastrophe such as BP has created.  

Here are the key issues as I see them:

  • Only 4 of the dozen or so companies drilling in the deepwater would survive an incident of this magnitude and pay for the damages: BP, Shell, Chevron, and Exxon.  If this disaster would have happened with any of the other deepwater operators, they would already be bankrupt, the clean-up would be all on the taxpayers, and we would be having a very different conversation than we are currently having.  Deepwater is a big boy game, and if we are to continue exploring here, cost, risk, reward, and clean-up responsibilities must all be pooled to assure that fixing a huge mess like this doesn't fall to the taxpayer.
  • Sea floor safety systems including BOPs and EDSs (blowout preventers and emergency disconnect systems) must be redesigned to contemplate a failure such as this one.  Blind shears must be able to cut whatever is run through them, or redundancy designed so that shear rams are always opposite a component they can cut.  Second, the kill and choke lines must be accessible by ROV without the presence of a rig.  Weeks were lost in this disaster while the kill and choke lines were re-fabricated by ROVs so a kill manifold (also fabricated) could be tied in.  
  • Acoustic communications systems (even though it wouldn't have prevented this blowout) must be installed.  This would eliminate possible failures in umbilical systems currently used in the Gulf.  Testing of these acoustic systems must assure that there is no negative effect on immediately surrounding sea life if it is used.
  • Third party witnessed safety systems tests must be immediately enacted.  Representatives from the MMS (or its successor agency) must be present for all BOP and safety system tests.  These reps could be MMS employees or contractors, but must be independent from the operator/drilling contractor/service companies on the rig.  Third parties must certify the condition and the functionality of the BOP stack each time it is pulled and re-run.  Current drawings of all sea floor safety systems must be on the rig, and on file with the drilling contractor on the shore.
  • Regulations around approval of offshore drilling permits, drilling and production plans, filed regional remediation plans, as well as plans for drilling programs, casing design, and completion programs must be tightened.  BP's decision to go with a top to bottom long string rather than a liner/tieback design was one of the critical errors that could have prevented this blowout.  I'll be writing about this issue in the next few days.
  • Design and manufacture of temporary risers and deepwater oil collection systems must be completed.  We are still waiting for the remedial riser system that is supposed to be sized to handle all of the flow from this well as oil continues to roar into the Gulf.  Before we go back to drilling, this type of system must be designed, tested, and staged in critical areas for rapid deployment.
  • A massive effort must be undertaken to completely rethink and redesign oil spill recovery techniques, including the use of dispersants, if any.  No real effort has been made in the last 40 years to advance oil spill clean-up technology and it is painfully clear that what we are currently doing simply doesn't work.  Whether it's Kevin Costner's centrifuge or giant oil sucking tankers, the techniques need to be perfected, the equipment manufactured, and the devices deployed to critical staging areas to meet the challenge of a massive spill before it reaches the shore.

As painful as this moratorium is, the industry, as well as our politicians, must have the courage and be willing to rethink the way we drill in the deepwater.  In the absence of a comprehensive energy policy, this productive region has become critical to our energy supply, allowing us to import less oil from countries who hate us, but this resource cannot come at the cost of destruction of eco-systems and local economies.  It's going to take a year for this level of redesign, and the sooner everyone recognizes and embraces that fact, the sooner we can get to work.  

And there's a lot of work to be done.


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