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Six years after fatal explosion, regulations on offshore drilling tighten

Six years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and explosion, the Obama administration has released new regulations for offshore oil and gas drilling.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Brian Salerno announced the U.S. Department of Interior's final well control regulations Thursday, April 14. The new restrictions include tightened safety requirements for the design and operational procedures of underwater drilling equipment, including blowout preventers.

The gas release and subsequent explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig near the Macondo exploration well occurred April 20, 2010. The incident resulted in 11 fatalities,17 critical injuries and the release of an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The incident is currently the largest oil spill related to offshore drilling.

"The new restrictions include tightened safety requirements for design and operational procedures."

As The New York Times reported, the explosion was prompted by the failure of a blowout preventer after a section of drill pipe buckled. However, the new regulations are not limited to blowout preventers, but will also place tougher restrictions on the design of undersea wells, well control casing, subsea containment and cementing. Additionally, the regulations enact new requirements for double shear rams, real-time monitoring of subsea drilling, third-party reviews of equipment, inspections and safe drilling margin requirements.

"We listened extensively to industry and other stakeholders and heard their concerns loud and clear – about drilling margins, blowout preventer inspections, accumulator capacity, and real-time monitoring," Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider said in a statement. "This rule includes both prescriptive and performance-based standards that are based on this extensive engagement and analysis."

According to the Interior Department, the new regulations were informed by investigations of the Deep Horizon Incident by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Oil Spill Commission, Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The Interior Department also reviewed feedback from more than 170 independent commentators including industry groups, equipment manufacturers, federal agencies, academics and environmental organizations.

However, the regulations were still met with instant criticism from both environmentalist and industry groups. While environmental groups objected the restrictions were too lax, oil and gas trade groups said the regulations ignored voluntary safety measures the industry has enacted since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and would place a costly and unfair burden on the sector.

Additional caution from the CSB
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued its final report on its investigation of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and its findings call for increased collaboration between government agencies and the oil and gas industry.

As Safety + Health magazine reported, the CSB has been investigating the incident for two years. The final two volumes of the CSB report, as well as its executive summary, concluded offshore regulatory changes enacted since the incident have so far been insufficient to reduce risks associated with offshore drilling. Additionally, the CSB concluded, regulatory agencies are not granted enough power to proactively oversee industry efforts necessary to prevent a similar disaster.

"The CSB called for heightened regulations and a focus on risk reduction policies."

CSB investigators called for heightened regulations from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, including a focus on risk reduction policies and how human and organizational factors play a role in safety.

"Offshore regulations in the U.S. have been moving toward a performance-based approach, but in order for the changes to be effective, there are key regulatory attributes BSEE needs to pursue," CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said in a statement. "These include an adaptable oversight approach that continuously strives to reduce risk, proactive tools to evaluate and monitor safety performance, and meaningful worker participation."

The CSB further noted adequate offshore safety will require increased regulatory oversight, as well as integrating activity-based safety and environmental management system elements into daily rig operations. According to CSB Lead Investigator and Human Factors Specialist Cheryl MacKenzie, incidents like those seen at Macondo are not caused by individual error, but are the result of several decisions and actions that occur throughout organizational chains.

"Zero incidents for a day, month, or even years do not preclude a company from facing a potentially catastrophic incident tomorrow," MacKenzie said in a statement. "Compliance isn't a paper exercise and it isn't a fixed target."

MacKenzie added that as circumstances in the work environment, technology or the rig's workforce change, companies must update their risk reduction efforts and be proactive in improving offshore safety. 

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