Photo: Illustration; Source: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)

U.S. puts the wheels into motion to strengthen safety standards for offshore oil & gas ops

In a bid to safeguard the environment and offshore workers’ lives from disasters brought on by oil spills and blowouts, like the Deepwater Horizon incident, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) is taking steps to bolster safe and environmentally responsible offshore oil and gas operations by proposing revisions to 2019 Well Control Rule.

The Department of the Interior disclosed a new proposed rule on Monday to ensure offshore oil and gas operations on the Outer Continental Shelf are “conducted with the utmost safety and oversight standards.” Building on reforms instituted by the DOI since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy killed 11 offshore workers, caused billions of dollars of damage and made lasting impacts on the environmental landscape in the Gulf of Mexico, the proposed rule from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) contains revisions to 2019 Well Control Rule, which will be in the Federal Register this week.

Kevin M. Sligh, BSEE Director, explained: “Protecting human lives and the environment has always been BSEE’s highest priority, and this proposed rulemaking will further ensure safe and environmentally responsible offshore energy production. These proposed revisions to the Well Control Rule are the result of knowledge and experience gained by stakeholders and BSEE since the 2019 rule was implemented. They will protect workers’ lives and the environment from the potentially devastating effects of blowouts and offshore oil spills.”

According to the DOI, the focus of the proposed rule is on well integrity and blowout prevention to help protect human lives and the environment by incorporating the latest technology and the lessons learned from operator experience and incident data since the current rule was adopted. Moreover, the revisions are being prosed after the Department of the Interior concluded its review of the current rule in accordance with President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 13990 – Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis – from January 2021.

Commenting on this, Secretary Deb Haaland, remarked: “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to the highest standards of worker safety and environmental protections. This proposed rulemaking will help ensure that offshore energy development utilises the latest science and technology to keep people safe. As our nation transitions to a clean energy economy, we must commit to strengthening and modernizing offshore energy standards and oversight.”

Furthermore, BSEE adopted several recommendations from multiple investigation teams in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010 to improve the safety of offshore energy operations, leading to the publication of the 2016 Well Control Rule. This was followed in May 2019 with a final rule, published by BSEE, that “weakened certain safety provisions.” Therefore, the newly proposed rule intends to revise some of the items that were amended or rescinded in 2019.

In lieu of this, the DOI is proposing revisions to further protect human lives and the environment, which will require blowout preventer systems (BOPs) to be able to close and seal the wellbore to the well’s kick tolerance design at all times; remove the option for operators to submit failure data to designated third parties and instead require the direct submittal of failure data to BSEE; as well as require failure analysis and investigations to start within 90 days instead of 120 days.

In addition, the proposed rule will require independent third parties to be accredited by a qualified standards development organisation; specify that surface BOPs on existing floating facilities must follow the dual shear ram requirements when replacing an entire BOP stack; require that remotely operated vehicles be capable of opening and closing each shear ram on a BOP; and require the operator to provide test results to BSEE within 72 hours after completion of the tests if BSEE is unable to witness testing.

The DOI underlined that the publication of the proposed rule also initiates a 60-day public comment period, during which the members of the public can submit comments on the proposed rulemaking until 14 November 2022.

This comes only weeks after Biden signed into law a new energy bill, which contains climate provisions. The bill has run into opposition from both the oil and gas industry and environmental groups.

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However, some still found grounds to celebrate the new bill while others claim this bill does not address America’s long-term energy needs as it discourages “needed investment in oil and gas,” calling for a permitting reform, and a finalised five-year federal offshore leasing programme to help ensure safe and long-term production off America’s shores.