National Academy of Engineering Finds Critical Offshore Drilling Safety Problems

Reforms haven’t been made to prevent another disastrous oil spill


David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031

A new report by The National Academy of Engineering concludes that the safety issues and regulatory oversight problems that led to BP’s 2010 catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have not been remedied, and that leaves communities vulnerable to another major oil spill along the Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts.

The National Academy of Engineering says that deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is “some of the most complex and most risky ventures conducted by commercial enterprises,” and that the devastating BP well explosion raises “questions about the industry’s overall safety preparedness, the ability to handle the complexities of the deep-water operations, and industry oversight to approve and monitor well plans and operational practices and personnel competency and training.”

“It’s back to business as usual as if the BP disaster never happened,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “The National Academy of Engineering tells us that deep water drilling still has a high risk of disaster, that the culture of corner-cutting in the industry and lax oversight by government haven’t changed. That means that the fishing communities and all the jobs in tourism and recreation in the Gulf region are at risk.”

The National Academy of Engineering experts say that a deficient safety culture led BP to rely on blowout preventers as equipment that just “couldn’t fail.”

Even before the well blowout, “there were numerous warnings to both industry and regulators about potential failures of existing” blowout preventers, the report says. The report points to studies in 2001, 2002, 2004, and a 1999 well blowout and fire off the Louisiana coast.

“One needs to understand that they do not work all the time,” panel chairman Donald Winter, a former Navy secretary and engineering professor at the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press. BP and all the industry had “a misplaced confidence that the blowout preventer could provide a guarantee if you will, an insurance policy, against a blowout,” he said.

The high risk involved in deep water drilling is the subject of an Earthjustice lawsuit against the federal government. The suit contends that federal regulators have conducted an irrationally optimistic risk assessment for Shell Oil Company’s plan to drill for oil in deep Gulf waters near the site of BP’s devastating spill. Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Florida Wildlife Federation. The legal challenge in the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, Ga. now awaits oral arguments. Earthjustice’s challenge points out that Shell’s exploration plan anticipates the company using the same type of blowout preventer that failed at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM) approved Shell’s plan after concluding that another accidental spill is virtually impossible.

“The Shell plan should be withdrawn until BOEM completes a risk assessment that comports with the facts found by independent experts,” Guest said. “The Academy report proves that the government’s optimistic risk assessments for deep water drilling are wrong.”

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