SkyTruth Comments on Deepwater Drilling Plan

The public was invited to submit comments regarding the first Exploration Plan (EP) for deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico completed in accordance with new safety and environmental standards mandated by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE, formerly known as the Minerals Management Service). The Supplemental EP, submitted by Shell Offshore, includes three proposed exploration wells in approximately 2,950 feet water depth approximately 130 miles off the coast of Louisiana. (BP’s failed Macondo well that blew out and caused the world’s worst accidental oil spill in the Gulf last summer was also an exploration well.)

In the comments submitted by SkyTruth, we argue that BOEMRE shouldn’t allow drilling without first implementing routine satellite monitoring for pollution. We also point out what we think are critical weaknesses in Shell’s plan to respond to, contain, and clean up a worst-case scenario oil spill, one of the major new requirements that BOEMRE has put in place. Shell contends that using essentially the same techniques (and much of the same equipment) that failed during the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill – skimmer vessels, controlled burns, chemical dispersants and absorbent booms – they will be able to handle almost ten times the amount of oil that BP and the Coast Guard, in an all-out effort, were able to capture or destroy on a daily basis.

In a related development, the Marine Well Containment Company just announced a promised deepwater blowout containment device has passed their tests and is now deemed ready for action. They also note that it will take up to 3 weeks to get the thing assembled and deployed when it’s needed. If Shell’s worst-case scenario oil spill of 3.1 million gallons (73,500 barrels) per day should occur, as much as 65 million gallons of oil could be in the water before the containment device even arrives on scene. That’s six Exxon Valdez spills. That’s why it is so important that we have a truly effective, functional cleanup plan and capability in place and ready to go before we start drilling again in deep water.

We’re definitely not convinced by Shell’s plan. And we remember the wildly over-optimistic claims that BP made about their ability to clean up oil from the gushing Macondo well, claims that were proven disastrously false in relatively benign weather conditions. BOEMRE needs to take a careful, hard look at these purported containment and cleanup capabilities, and should require convincing explanation, documentation, and testing before new deepwater drilling permits are issued. Because the first plan BOEMRE approves will become the template, the de facto standard, that all other aspiring drillers will copy. Get it wrong, and we’ll be caught flatfooted again by the next spill. Get it right, and offshore drilling will proceed along an environmentally and economically safer path.

Isn’t that the path we all want to take?