Research Paper: Regulating Oil and Gas Drilling

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[. . .] The OPA also expanded the role and breadth of the "National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan" (NCP), establishing a multi-layered "planning and response system" in order to improve the preparedness and responses to any spill that occurs in a marine environment (Ramseur, 13). Moreover, the OPA in 1990 required that oil tankers (flying the U.S. flag), offshore facilities (like the Deepwater Horizon rig), and certain onshore facilities operated by oil companies "…prepare and submit oil spill response plans" to federal agencies that regulate oil drilling and transport (Ramseur, 13). Without those advanced response plans, any drilling or transporting of oil is illegal, according to the particulars of OPA.

In 2004, Congress passed an amendment to OPA that requires vessels carrying oil for their own fuel consumption to also submit a "vessel response plan" if the vessel is carrying over 400 gross tons, Ramseur explains. The OPA is just one law that relates to oil issues; the Clean Water Act (CWA) is also pertinent because it flatly prohibits "…the discharge of oil or hazardous substances into U.S. navigable waters" (Ramseur, 17). The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) is actually the main regulating Act that governs oil exploration and operations in waters where there is federal jurisdiction. It has been amended several times, but clearly has not prevented environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon event.

Law professor Mark. A. Latham writes in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Affairs that the regulations in place at the time of the Deepwater Horizon blowout were wholly inadequate. Providing scholarly collaborative narrative to support the thesis of this paper, Latham explains that while the "…catastrophe was a failure of technology," the over-riding facts subsequent to the disaster is that federal oversight is grossly inadequate (Latham, 2011, p. 345). The agency responsible for oversight prior to the catastrophe, the Minerals Management Services (MMS), and Latham asserts that any claim that the MMS was capable of being an "effective regulatory body" has been "shattered" (345).

In the first place, expecting that drilling an oil well 1,500 to 25,000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico -- "an incredibly challenging endeavor" -- will go smoothly is based on technology but also depends on "luck," Latham writes. Even drilling a well 1,500 feet into the ocean is like standing on the top of Sears Tower in Chicago "…and trying to stick a long straw in a bottle of Coke sitting on South Wacker Drive" (Latham, 347). Apparently the MMS failed to "adequately regulate the one piece of technology relied on in the industry as a last resort to shut down and out-of-control well," and that is the "blowout preventer" (Latham, 349). How much faith do engineers, MMS officials, and other industry professionals place in blowout preventers over the years? Very little, according to professor Latham.

Latham says blowout preventer equipment has not been believed to be an effective fail-safe / last resort technology in the industry, and hence, it is "shocking" that BP and the MMS were relying on the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer (350). Given the poor record for preventing blowouts -- including the 1979 blowout and resulting massive 140 million gallon oil spill in the Mexican Gulf Coast waters (IXTOC 1) -- the failure of the BP blowout preventer "…was not some unexpected, unanticipated, rare occurrence. It was an entirely foreseeable event," Latham asserts on page 350.

Moreover, for many years MMS has had concerns as to how effective blowout preventers are in terms of preventing huge spills. Ten years prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the MMS funded a study in order to assess the reliability of blowout preventer technology. That study closely examined "…a total of 117 failures associated with blowout preventers at eighty-three deepwater wells" and listed 57% of the failures as "safety critical failures" (Latham, 351). In 2004, MMS hired an engineering service (WEST Engineering Services) to answer this question: "Can a rig's blowout preventer (BOP) equipment shear the pipe to be used in a given drilling program at the most demanding condition to be expected, and at what pressure?" (Latham, 351-352).

The reason that MMS posed this particular question was not just out of regulatory curiosity, Latham continues. It was asked because failure to properly "…shear" when the final safety option is employed can be expected to result in "…a major safety and/or environmental event" (352). Certainly the Deepwater Horizon event can testify to the importance of making sure that the blowout preventer -- the very last resort for a well operator working on a platform in the ocean -- is capable of stopping a catastrophe. The WEST answer to the MMS question about blowout preventer capabilities was, in hindsight, foreshadowing: WEST was "…currently aware of several failures to shear when conducting shear tests using the drill pipe that was to be used in the well" (Latham, 352).

The failure of tests of blowout preventer technology that MMS was aware of in 2004 was not the only factor that is pertinent to the thesis of this paper. The procedural, bureaucratic history of MMS's process is also a factor; to wit, when the MMS research into blowout preventer failures was completed in 2006, "It then took several years for MMS to publish a proposed rule focusing on reducing the potential adverse safety and environmental aspects of deepwater drilling" (Latham, 355).

The rule that was finally adopted (vis-a-vis the reduction of potential adverse safety and environmental impacts in deepwater drilling) resulted from a study of "…more than 1,400 incidents" that were reported during oil exploration and production activities on the "Outer Continental Shelf" (Latham, 355). Those 1,400 incidents occurred on 41 different oil facilities, and there were ten instances in which control of the well (i.e., effectiveness of the blowout preventer system) "was lost" (Latham, 355). As another example of sluggish government response and ineffective regulatory procedures, it turns out that the final rule adopted by the MMS did not get published "…until almost six months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster resulted in eleven deaths" and an unprecedented amount of damage to the environment, to the economies of the Gulf Coast, and to wildlife (Latham, 355).

Meanwhile, the damage to wildlife from the Deepwater Horizon blowout (which resulted in the deaths of 11 workers) was extensive. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) estimate more than 8,000 sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals were "…found dead or injured in the six months after the spill" (NWF). Birds were found will oil-coated feathers (birds lose buoyancy and the ability to regulate their body temperature); mammals that ingested oil suffered from ulcers and internal bleeding; sea coral suffered enormous losses, and those were the short-term impacts.

Long-term, there cannot be any certainty about the potential impacts to the environment and the wildlife in the Gulf, the NWF explains. For example, it took four years after the Exxon Valdez disaster to determine the impact on the herring population, and it was determined that the herring population had "collapsed" and twenty years later it still had not recovered (NWF).

As to the response of the Obama Administration to the Deepwater Horizon spill, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has reportedly set new standards and "certification protocols for well design, testing, and control equipment" (White House). Also, the administration has established what it calls "…rigorous performance standards to reduce workplace error" and has established "comprehensive safety and environmental management" (White House). What operators of offshore oil equipment must now present to officials "well-specific blowout scenarios" and they must also submit "revised worst-case discharge calculations," the White House details on its website.

For deepwater operators, they must demonstrate that they have "…the capability to contain a sub-sea discharge like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill," the White House explains. By imposing these tighter standards, the administration believes that there is a "clear, achievable path for responsible offshore exploration, development and production" (White House).

Meanwhile the U.S. Congress got deeply involved in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to The Times-Picayune. After more than 60 hearings in Congress, and after more than 150 legislative proposals had been offered, Congress actually enacted "…two statutes involving oil spill-related issues" (Schleifstein, 2013). The first law (signed by President Obama in January, 2012) is the "Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011"; this legislation not only related to the BP blowout, but anticipated the possibility that the Keystone SL Pipeline -- that is being proposed to run from Canada down through the heart of the United States to Texas -- could be eventually approved.

The above-mentioned law greatly increases "…civil penalties for violating safety requirements" and the law also requires the use of "…automatic and remote-controlled shutoff valves on new constructed transmission pipelines" (Schleifstein). The law requires the Department of Transportation to "…analyze lead detection systems" and also… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Research Paper:

APA Format

Regulating Oil and Gas Drilling.  (2013, February 15).  Retrieved December 10, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Regulating Oil and Gas Drilling."  15 February 2013.  Web.  10 December 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Regulating Oil and Gas Drilling."  February 15, 2013.  Accessed December 10, 2019.