Offshore Safety in the Wake of the Macondo Disaster: Business as Usual or Sea Change?

Article excerpt

  I. INTRODUCTION   II. THREE CHANGES TO BUSINESS AS USUAL      A. Complacency as Negligence      B. The Moratorium as a Technology Forcer      C. Best Practices Go Global: Safety Management         Systems      D. Concluding Comments on Three Changes to         Business as Usual: Is the Gulf of Mexico Safer         Now?  III. THE ROLE OF THE REGULATOR: BEST PRACTICES      forthcoming (1)   IV. WHERE THE GAPS ARE: OESAC forthcoming    V. CONCLUSIONS, RECOMMENDATIONS, AND FINAL      OBSERVATIONS forthcoming  APPENDIX A 

"Much has changed, but nothing has happened. Or is it that much has happened but nothing has changed?" (2)


Only two years after the lifting of the Gulf of Mexico moratorium on drilling exploratory deepwater wells, all seemed back to normal in the Gulf, as shown by the following headlines:

"Deepwater Gulf of Mexico Set to Be the World's Most Active Play"

--E&E News, October 4, 2012 (3)

"Anadarko: It's Back to Black After Hit Related to Spill"

--Houston Chronicle, October 30, 20124

"House Passes Expanded 5-Year OCS Plan; Senators Offer Similar Bill."

--Oil & Gas Journal, August 6, 20125

Indeed, an investment analyst's report estimated that forty-five to fifty deepwater drilling rigs could be operating in the Gulf of Mexico in 2014, a nearly fifty percent increase over the thirty or so rigs drilling at the time of the BP-Deepwater Horizon-Macondo disaster. (6) By November 1, 2012, drilling permit approvals were back to pre-spill levels. (7) BP had started oil production from a lease 140 miles southeast of New Orleans and under more than 6,500 feet of water, from a well that had received the first permit granted after the lifting of the moratorium. (8) BP also raised its dividends to shareholders, calling the move a "gesture of confidence" in BP's future. (9) Offshore drilling contractors posted higher-than-expected earnings in mid-November 2012 amidst a "frenzy" of deepwater discoveries around the globe, including in the Gulf of Mexico. (10) When China launched its first deepwater oil rig in 2012, the chair of state-controlled CNOOC declared deepwater rigs to be China's "mobile national territory and a strategic weapon" in China's quest for oi1. (11)

In December 2011, only fourteen months after the moratorium was lifted, the Department of Interior held its first post-Macondo lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico and announced firm plans to hold more such sales in its upcoming Five Year Leasing Plan for 2012-2017. (12) The 2012 Annual Energy Outlook of the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that crude oil production in the United States, largely from offshore resources in the Gulf of Mexico and the development of "tight oil" in shale plays, will increase through 2020. (13) In March 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that public support for offshore drilling had risen to the same level it was before the Macondo disaster. (14)

All seems back to normal in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet at the two-year anniversary of the end of the moratorium, a sheen of oil surfaced on the water from the site of the sealed Macondo well. (15) Was this sheen a sign of complacency--a warning signal to be cautious about the promise of deepwater drilling in the Gulf and indeed in many other areas of the world? While the Macondo disaster faded from the front page after the well was capped, other offshore oil spills and gas leaks, onshore pipeline spills, and fiery explosions from refineries and petrochemical facilities using crude oil and natural gas as feedstocks have often made headline news.16 These incidents serve as a constant reminder of the ever-present dangers of a society and economy powered by the combustion of oil and gas.

When the Exxon Valdez spilled 260,000 barrels of oil into the scenic wonderland of Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, (17) Congress reacted quickly by passing the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 with near unanimity. …