U.S. Toughens Offshore Drilling Rules
By Karin Rives
Washington - The worst oil spill in U.S. history has triggered a shake-up of the government agency that oversees offshore drilling and prompted new rules that officials hope will keep oceans safe from future accidents.
At stake are not just American waters, but oceans worldwide, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told an ocean conference being held in Washington January 19-21.
"The oceans of our Earth are intertwined, so whatever we do in the Gulf of Mexico and in the water of the United States will have implications for the development of oil and gas in the oceans all around our world," Salazar said. "I hope that we as a nation develop the gold standard for safe oil and gas production from our world oceans."
There are also early discussions under way with industry regulators in other Gulf nations to seek uniform standards for drillers, officials said.
Eleven people died and more than 750 million liters of crude oil gushed into the ocean when a BP exploratory oil rig exploded in April 2010. It took three months to stop the spill.
The Obama administration since has extended the moratorium on new drilling in the eastern part of the Gulf until 2017, but the reforms announced this week affect oil and gas drillers in all American waters.
MORE OVERSIGHT FOR DRILLERS
The U.S. Department of the Interior is creating two new independent agencies, one to approve oil and gas leases and the other to enforce worker safety and environmental regulations. A third function, collection of royalties from oil and gas companies, had already been separated into an independent agency.
By isolating such functions, the Interior Department wants to make sure employees who are overseeing compliance with safety and environmental laws don't get distracted by other tasks.
A new advisory board of leading scientists, engineers and technical experts will give the government input on offshore drilling safety and spill response. Regulations for drillers have also been tightened to ensure oil and gas companies have adequate safety plans and are subject to independent inspections before and during production.
"We've launched the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms of offshore oil and gas regulations ever seen in U.S. history," Salazar said. "We're raising the bar for safety oversight and environmental protection at every stage of the oil and gas development process."
INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATION NEEDED, EXPERTS SAY
William Reilly, co-chairman of a national commission created to investigate the BP oil spill, said such steps won't protect the entire Gulf of Mexico. Mexican state oil company Pemex is planning to develop oil wells in the deep water of the Gulf and Cuba is planning 14 wells, he said.
"We cannot look at the Gulf without recognizing that other countries will be drilling relatively soon, within the next two years," he said. "We have the same issue in the Arctic. The Russians are moving into the Russian Arctic and other countries, Denmark and Canada ... have agreements to drill there. I think it's very important that we recognize the international significance of this. We're dealing, after all, with a global industry that is present everywhere."
Reilly, a former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said he's had conversations with Mexican regulators about creating uniform rules for off-shore drilling in the Gulf. Mexico may also be able to facilitate a future agreement with Cuba, he said.
Ultimately, however, the United States and the world must wean themselves off fossil fuels, Salazar said.
"As we move forward with oil and gas production, we know that we're not going to drill our way to energy independency," he said. "We as a nation need to come together ... and embrace a broad, comprehensive energy policy that will power our economy with sustainable and renewable energy."
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)