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April 20, 2020, 10:31 a.m. EDT

10 years after BP spill: Oil drilled deeper and environmental rules relaxed

Industry advocates say there’s now a greater emphasis on complex systems that influence safety and fewer, if bigger, active oil platforms

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By Associated Press

Associated Press
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in 2010. Ten years after the oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and unleashed an environmental nightmare in the Gulf of Mexico, companies are drilling into deeper and deeper waters where the payoffs can be huge.

Ten years after an oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and unleashed an environmental nightmare in the Gulf of Mexico, companies are drilling into deeper and deeper waters, where the payoffs can be huge but the risks are greater than ever.

Industry leaders and government officials say they’re determined to prevent a repeat of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. It spilled 134 million gallons of oil that fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida, killed hundreds of thousands of marine animals and devastated the region’s tourist economy.

Yet safety rules adopted in the spill’s aftermath have been eased as part of President Donald Trump’s drive to boost U.S. oil production. And government data reviewed by The Associated Press shows the number of safety inspection visits has declined in recent years, although officials say checks of electronic records, safety systems and individual oil rig components have increased.

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Today companies are increasingly reliant on production from deeper and inherently more dangerous oil reserves, where drill crews can grapple with ultra-high pressures and oil temperatures that can top 350 degrees (177 degrees Celsius).

Despite almost $2 billion in spending by the industry on equipment to respond to an oil well blowout like BP’s /zigman2/quotes/207305210/composite BP -2.09%  , some scientists, former government officials and environmentalists say safety practices appear to be eroding. And there are worries that cleanup tactics have changed little in decades and are likely to prove as ineffective as they were in 2010.

“I’m concerned that in the industry, the lessons aren’t fully learned — that we’re tending to backslide,” said Donald Boesch, a marine science professor at the University of Maryland who was on a federal commission that determined the BP blowout was preventable.

Regulators and industry leaders say they’ve employed lessons from the April 20, 2010, disaster to make deep-water drilling safer by setting tougher construction and enforcement standards.

“I think the event 10 years ago really initiated kind of a new day in offshore safety,” said Debra Phillips, of the American Petroleum Institute, a standards-setting trade association.

Companies have a financial interest in preventing a repeat of the 2010 disaster, which cost BP more than $69 billion in cleanup, fines, fees and settlements. Questions over environmental effects linger, and litigation continues over health problems suffered by cleanup workers.

Competing oil giants joined in the disaster’s wake to create the Marine Well Containment Co., which has equipment and vessels positioned regionwide to quickly corral oil if another major spill occurs.

“All of (the) industry wanted to make sure that nothing like it could ever happen again,” said CEO David Nickerson, at the company’s complex near Corpus Christi on Texas’ coast.

He was dwarfed by “capping stacks”″ — multistory structures of piping, valves and gauges designed to be lowered to halt a major high-pressure blowout.

The hope is that such equipment won’t be needed. Yet the Trump administration has relaxed rules adopted in 2016, including the frequency of drilling rig safety tests. That’s projected to save energy companies roughly $1.7 billion in compliance costs over a decade.

Read: Shell joins BP with plan to cut emissions — leaves analysts asking where are Exxon and Chevron?

An AP review found the number of safety inspection visits by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement — created after the spill — went down more than 20% over the past six years in the Gulf.

Industry advocates say inspection figures reflect greater emphasis on complex systems that influence safety rather than minor technical matters, and note there are fewer, if bigger, active oil platforms. They say the administration’s rule changes allow companies to deviate from “one-size-fits-all” standards not always suited to water pressure and other conditions at individual wells.

“Sometimes, when the regulations are quite prescriptive, it can actually inadvertently deteriorate safety,” said Phillips, of the American Petroleum Institute.

Environmentalists and critics say the changes appear to be eroding safety practices adopted after the spill.

“The industry itself is in the lead in trying to reduce its risk and protect its workers,” said Bob Deans of the National Resources Defense Council, one of several environmental groups suing over Trump administration changes. “The problem comes when you’re behind schedule, over budget and pressure comes from on top to get the job done and move on to the next project. That was the problem on Deepwater Horizon.″

The federal commission that studied the accident and the federal judge who oversaw myriad lawsuits put the blame on BP for poor management. In a key court ruling, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said “profit-driven decisions” on the rig were made in “conscious disregard of known risks.”

Debate over the strength of regulation and industry safety consciousness goes on as wells close to shore run dry and companies drill in deeper waters farther offshore.

The average depth of deep water drilling steadily increased, from about 3,500 feet (1,070 meters) beneath the surface in 1999 to more than 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) in 2019, according to an AP analysis of data from the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. That’s an increase of about 32%. Drilling deeper makes well sites harder to reach in a blowout or other accident.

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