It’s been nearly six years to the day since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 men and triggering the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Now, the federal government has released new rules aimed at preventing the kinds of blowouts that can cause disasters like the one in the Gulf.
The rules target blowout preventers, the piece of safety equipment that is supposed to seal the oil well during an emergency. That equipment failed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, leaving the Macondo well to gush oil into the Gulf. Among other things, the new rules establish requirements for the “design, manufacture, repair, and maintenance of blowout preventers” that is based on up-to-date industry standards. They also require a “more rigorous third party certification” for these blowout preventers, and institute real-time monitoring for high-temperature and high-pressure drilling.
Since proposing the regulations in 2015, the Department of Interior has closely examined all comments they’ve received on the proposal, Interior officials said on a call Thursday. The agency did make some changes and clarifications to the rules between issuing the proposal and releasing the final rules.
It takes a long time to do this right, and it takes a long time to understand what went wrong.
The oil industry, as it typically does when new regulations are announced, began disparaging the the rules even before they were announced.
“The Well Control Rule will affect offshore energy projects for years to come,” Erik Milito, upstream group director for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement to E&E; News. “If left unchanged from the proposal, the flaws in the rule could lead to increased risks and decreased safety in offshore operations.”
Environmental groups were generally supportive of the rules Thursday, with Oceana calling them “a significant improvement over the status quo.” But some groups, including Public Citizen, have taken issue with the fact that the agency has taken nearly six years to come out with the regulations. To this, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said Thursday that the rules “took a long time because it was very important that we understood deeply the root cause of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.” The agency had been working to understand the failings of the technology on the drilling rig, and had also wanted to be as up-to-date as possible on the latest drilling technology.
“It takes a long time to do this right, and it takes a long time to understand what went wrong,” she said.
The rules come as the damages to birds, fish, marine mammals, and coastal and marine ecosystems are still being quantified by scientists. A report released Thursday by Oceana reviewed the latest studies on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and outlined what scientists have discovered so far about the spill. According to the report, about 600,000 to 800,000 birds died because of the spill. The spill wiped out a third of the northern Gulf of Mexico’s population of laughing gulls, and scientists think that exposure to oil and chemical dispersants could also affect future generations of birds: Two years after the spill, 90 percent of pelican eggs from birds that wintered in the Gulf contained hydrocarbons from the spill, and 80 percent contained chemical dispersants.
Marine mammals, including dolphins, were also hit hard by the spill. The report found that dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana — a region that was still seeing the effects of the spill five years after it happened — had mortality rates that were 8 percent higher and reproductive success rates 63 percent lower than other dolphins. Another study published this week tied more than 170 baby dolphin deaths to the spill. The federal government, in its final impact assessment of the spill, projected that it would be 39 years before bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay fully recovered from the spill, and 52 years before Mississippi River Delta dolphins recovered.
Oil from the spill “caused bleaching and tissue loss” in an area of coral reefs three times larger than Manhattan, the report found. And humans weren’t spared either: The blowout killed 11 men who were working on the Deepwater Horizon rig, but the report also found that the 50,000 people who helped clean up the spill were exposed to lung-damaging chemicals, and they and their spouses reported increased depression and domestic disputes after the spill.
Updated rules on well blowout preventers rule are a good start, the report said, but it also recommended that President Obama take the Atlantic, Arctic, and ultra-deepwater regions off the table for drilling, along with regions of the ocean with sensitive ecosystems. The Obama administration removed the Atlantic from its five-year energy development plan earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean a new administration couldn’t insert the region back in or include the Atlantic in future five-year plans.
“We know that opening new areas to offshore drilling poses unacceptable risks,” Ingrid Biedron, marine scientist at Oceana, said in a statement. “Instead of expanding our dependence on risky offshore drilling, we should rapidly develop clean energy solutions like offshore wind.”