Draft bill targets 'high-risk wells' to prevent future blowouts

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; 6:23 PM

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on Friday began circulating a draft bill aimed at preventing future oil spills and overhauling the way federal authorities regulate both offshore and onshore drilling.

The proposal would target "high-risk wells," which the draft defines as any operation that according to federal officials, "in the event of a blowout, could lead to substantial harm to public health and safety or the environment."

The disaster that began with the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig has sparked a flurry of legislative measures. Waxman's proposal is expected to become the central vehicle for legislation in the House.

In a statement, Waxman said, "The Committee has uncovered serious deficiencies in exploration practices, and this legislation seeks to ensure that we never have a repeat of the BP disaster."

The bill is likely to meet resistance from oil companies, but oil industry officials did not immediately respond to messages late Friday seeking comment.

The measure would bar the government from issuing a drilling permit to any high-risk well for a year after the law's enactment unless the applicant can demonstrate it has well control measures that "will prevent a blowout from occurring," that it has an effective oil spill response plan and that it can begin drilling a relief well within 15 days and can complete such a well within 90 days of a spill.

Waxman's bill also includes several new well construction requirements aimed at preventing a blowout, such as two sets of blind shear rams, two sets of casing shear rams and "at least three independent tested barriers, including at least two mechanical barriers, across each flow path during well completion and abandonment activities."

These requirements could also become more stringent over time, because the measure calls for the creation of an independent "Well Control Technical Advisory Committee" 60 days after its enactment that would not only assess the current state of blowout prevention technology but could suggest revisions to federal drilling rules as needed.

In addition, the measure requires "periodic unannounced inspections by agency inspectors of drilling operations" by well control and blowout prevention inspectors.

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