Inability to contain a deepwater oil spill prompted drilling ban, administration official says

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 6:57 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Oil companies drilling in the deep-water coastal waters do not know how to contain a spill like the one that has spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- a chief reason the Obama administration is extending a ban on offshore drilling, said Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

"They don't have a fix on what the most effective containment strategies are," Bromwich testified Tuesday before the presidential commission investigating the cause of the April 20 BP explosion and spill and the future of offshore drilling in the United States. The BP spill also has consumed response equipment and personnel from across the country, exposing vulnerabilities should deepwater drilling resume, he said.

Until improvements are in place, Bromwich said, the Department of the Interior does not intend to back away from a ban on deep-water drilling that has angered numerous companies and gulf residents because of its economic impact.

Bromwich, the new head of the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Services, appeared a day after a ban on deep-water drilling was recast by the Department of the Interior. The "pause" in drilling, which could last until Nov. 30, is based not on an operation's drilling depth but on the type of rigs and equipment in place to prevent a blowout like the one preceding the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which killed 11. Bromwich's office oversees drilling licenses and inspections for the Interior Department, including for the 33 deepwater rigs now in place. The ban contains exemptions that will allow 12 rigs to continue in operation while 21 are idled, said Bromwich.

He will hold 12 hearings on deepwater drilling in communities in the Gulf, California and Alaska, before delivering a report by Oct. 31 to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Bromwich said. In announcing the ban's revival, Salazar said it could be lifted sooner than Nov. 30, but the timeline laid out by Bromwich suggests the department would take a full four months to make a decision.

Bromwich declined to be interviewed after his appearance at the commission.

The financial impact of the drilling ban has drawn the anger of many industry, elected officials and gulf residents, including Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who on Monday told the commission to issue a quick recommendation to lift restrictions.

It is unlikely the commission could take a position soon, its co-chairmen said in a news conference. But after its first two days of hearings, they acknowledged that they share the urgency felt by Gulf residents and the oil industry about the impact of the ban.

The pleas to weigh economic harms have been compelling, said commission co-chairman William K. Reilly, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. "I have a different understanding of that than I did three or four days ago," he added.

The commission's role "is to build a fire" under the frontline investigators and Interior officials who can investigate the safety of deepwater rigs and their ability to contain a spill and to "look over their shoulder" in coming to their own opinion, said former Florida senator Bob Graham, the other co-chairman.

He and Reilly also said they would be asking what safety reviews of the existing rigs have been done since the BP explosion, with Graham questioning whether rigs could be brought back online individually if BOE inspectors were prepared to do rigorous inspections.

Bromwich said the existing deepwater sites would be inspection priorities, but that the other provisions driving the ban, including better response-planning industrywide, could take time to put in place.

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