Michael Bromwich answers your questions – Part two

In this week’s readers’ Q&A session, Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, answers your questions.

In this second post, he discusses the reliability of blowout preventers (BOPs), the future of drilling in Alaska, and whether commercial concerns dictate his decision making.

Earlier, he talked about how his organisation balances safety concerns with political ones, what technological improvements have been made since the BP oil spill and whether new regulations on BOPs will delay the issue of new permits.

Next week, Steve Cunningham, chief executive of Landis+Gyr, the world’s biggest smart meter maker, will be in the hotseat. Email your questions to energysource@ft.com by the end of Sunday, April 17th.

But for now, over to Michael:

BOP problems

Det Norske Veritas concluded the design flaw was not isolated to just the Deepwater Horizon’s BOP, but rather to all BOPs. How, then, can you justify granting deepwater drilling permits when the last line of defence against a blowout very well may not function as intended?
Michael Craig, energy analyst, Oceana

I’ve never believed that BOPs were immune from failures, nor has my agency. A misplaced belief that any one safety measure is 100 per cent effective is a recipe for disaster.

Even with the concerns about the failure of the Deepwater Horizon BOP, we believe that offshore oil and gas drilling can proceed safely because we have put in place more safeguards and environmental protection than existed prior to Deepwater Horizon. These new safety measures include heightened drilling safety standards to reduce the chances that a loss of well control might occur in the first place. The safety standards include specific requirements relating to the function and testing of BOPs, as I described in the previous post.

We believe that offshore oil and gas drilling can proceed safely because we have put in place more safeguards and environmental protection than existed prior to Deepwater Horizon

Although we trust that enhancements and improvements can be made to BOPs – and that is what we will seek to achieve through our enhanced regulations – it’s naive to think that they will ever be “failsafe” devices. That is why a comprehensive programme also needs to focus on planning for the worst – which is why deepwater operators are now required to prove that they can contain a subsea oil spill.

Since the implementation of these new, common-sense safety requirements, operators of 10 wells have demonstrated that capability by proving that have access to adequate containment resources, including specific pieces of equipment such as a capping stack.

Arctic drilling

It took approximately 6,000 vessels over three months to control the Macondo well, and there is no way that a similar response could be mobilized should a blowout or large spill occur in Alaska’s Arctic. So why is your agency moving forward with leasing more of Alaska’s Arctic Ocean, and why have Shell’s applications for exploratory drilling not already been denied?
Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace USA Arctic programme director

There are unique and specific issues that need to be addressed before drilling can occur offshore Alaska, chief among them the ability to respond to an oil spill in arctic waters. The conditions in the arctic are unique and challenging when considering the cold weather and significant presence of ice for so much of the year.

Shell had proposed to drill a single well in 2011, but for reasons unrelated to BOEMRE, they withdrew that proposal. We are going to need to be satisfied that some of the significant issues relating to oil spill response and other associated questions are answered to our satisfaction before we give the green light to drill.

Safety vs commercial considerations

When deciding on how quickly to step up permitting in the Gulf of Mexico, how much attention do you pay to companies’ complaints that the delays are bad for business?
Kiran Stacey, editor, Energy Source

We are working every day to allow safe drilling and production operations in the Gulf of Mexico to continue to keep production flowing and people working in an industry that is crucial to our nation’s economy and energy independence. We are sympathetic to the damage that the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon has caused to companies, their employees, and the Gulf States’ economies, but neither political nor private sector pressures are affecting our actions.

To be clear, we did not make a policy decision to speed up permitting. Instead, starting for the first time in late February, offshore operators began demonstrating that they were able to satisfy all of our regulatory requirements. We approve permits one at a time but only after satisfying ourselves that they have met all applicable requirements.

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