Safer Offshore Drilling? Trust us.

With much fanfare, the federal government agency responsible for managing offshore drilling, BOEMRE, issued the first new permit for deepwater drilling since the BP / Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Sort of new, but not really: the permit allows Noble Energy to resume work on a well that was already being drilled when the spill brought activity to an abrupt halt. Nevertheless, BOEMRE made a big deal out of this. In this Houston chronicle op-ed, director Micheal Bromwich said:

“This permit was issued for one simple reason: The operator successfully demonstrated that it could drill its deep-water well safely and that it was capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur. We expect further deep-water permits to be approved in the coming weeks and months based on the same factors that led to the approval of this permit.”

In other words, this permit will become a template that all other companies will follow to get their drilling plans approved. Well then, this must be one heckuva permit application, filled with substantial details evaluating what a worst-case spill scenario for this specific well would be in the event of an uncontrolled blowout; detailing the capabilities, engineering design specifications, rigorous testing procedures and comprehensive test results for the vaunted new containment device that would be relied on to stop a blowout; and describing all the new cleanup equipment, techniques and procedures that are now standing by ready to immediately respond to the multimillion gallon oil spill that will happen even if the containment device works perfectly.

Here’s the public version we obtained of Noble Energy’s permit application. Notice anything missing?

This document doesn’t address any of the obvious safety issues listed above. Not a one. So how on earth did Mr. Bromwich reach the conclusion that Noble “successfully demonstrated that it could drill its deep-water well safely”?

It is possible that all of the necessary information is in the redacted version, not available to the public. But then I have to ask, 1) how can this application serve as a model for other companies who want to drill, if all of the important new safety information is withheld from view? and 2) how can the public have any degree of confidence that the safety of offshore drilling in America has been significantly improved, if we can’t see that information and evaluate it for ourselves?

Is this the new era of transparency and accountability that we were promised in the wake of the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion?

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.