Less than 180 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank and less than 60 days after BP finally sealed the well that leaked 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration lifted its own moratorium on deepwater drilling.
While Gulf State oil workers, especially in Louisiana, are relieved, hoping that new permits will be approved by year’s end and jobs that have been on hold can continue, others are concerned the early end of the moratorium (days before it was planned, on November 30) may be rushed.
Five reasons we may regret the early lifting:
- New rules and regulations required by oil industry operators may not be sufficiently understood, by either government or industry. New standards require that operators must have blowout preventers inspected and design approved by an independent third party. In direct response to the BP accident, new deepwater rigs must come with reports illustrating exactly how they could prevent or reduce a blowout at the wellhead. And they must have all casing designs and cementing operations certified by an outside engineer. All of that sounds good on paper, but is the new government agency set up to inspect new permits ready?
- Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council – comprised of scientists and lawyers – worry that not enough is known about what exactly caused the BP explosion to prevent a similar accident from happening again. Despite the new standards for permitting “there is no insurance that future drilling will be done responsibly,” says the NRDC’s executive director Peter Lehner. Cutting corners will remain a concern in the very-for-profit oil industry.
- Lifting the moratorium in the Gulf gives fuel to those hoping for a similar relief off the coast of Alaska. Since the BP accident all drilling in the Beaufort Sea has been banned; Alaska Governor Sean Parnell immediately picked up the argument that if it’s okay to drill below 5,000 feet in the Gulf it should be a-ok to drill in shallow waters in his state’s waters. For now the Department of Interior is proceeding cautiously regarding oil drilling off the North Slope due to to concerns that any spill could decimate a still-mostly pristine environment.
- With the moratorium lifted Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will have plenty of time on his hands; he’s made lifting the ban his fulltime job since early summer. Never friendly to environmental concerns, Jindal may refocus on the misplaced building of offshore berms (a boon to buddies in the construction business?). He is also pushing for even more shallow water permits – since June only 12 have been permitted off Louisiana; pre-spill that many were okayed every month. But competition for ugliest political maneuvering in the state is stiff: Senator Mary Landrieu continues to single-handedly block the appointment of a new White House budget director until she’s satisfied the moratorium is “sufficiently” lifted.
- The biggest reason to worry about more deepwater drilling is because inevitably leaks and spills will continue to occur. And not necessarily because of industrial malfeasance or corners being cut, just statistically. As long as we continue to drill one, two and three miles below the ocean’s surface – an always risky, messy undertaking whether on land or sea – there will be accidents, small and, one day again, big. The best protection against another BP-like accident? Less dependence on crude.
[Photos by P.J. Hahn]