The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is Obama’s plan to prevent another BP-like disaster

A large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Placeholder while article actions load

This post has been updated.

The White House on Thursday issued new regulations governing offshore oil rigs in an attempt to prevent oil-well blowouts and minimize environmental damage from future leaks. The updated requirements, issued by the Interior Department, come roughly six years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and polluted hundreds of miles of U.S. shoreline.

Federal officials have said that the new guidelines were drawn in part from investigations about what went wrong during the 2010 spill, which occurred after an explosion and fire rocked a BP oil rig about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Oil gushed from the damaged well head for 87 days before it was finally capped. It ranks as one of the costliest environmental disasters ever, both in clean-up costs and in fines and financial settlements paid by the oil giant BP, which owned the well, and several contractors.

“This was a Herculean effort,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters Thursday, adding that it took years to finalize “because it was very, very important that we understood deeply the root cause of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.”

The new rule establishes minimum baseline requirements for the design, manufacture, repair and maintenance of systems known as blowout preventers, or BOPs. It also includes requirements surrounding the design and monitoring of high-pressure, undersea oil wells. Under the new requirements, well heads and BOPs would have to be built to more stringent standards and subjected to rigorous monitoring, mandatory reporting and regular testing.

The Interior Department, which first proposed the new regulations last year, said the final version incorporated input from the petroleum industry, environmental activists and other groups. The agency held scores of meetings on the proposal with dozens of interested groups, held a public forum on how to shape the new regulations and solicited public comment after its initial proposal.

The latest regulations are part of a broader effort undertaken by the Obama administration after the 2010 disaster to make offshore drilling safer and limit potential environmental damage. Regulators already have imposed stricter requirements on offshore drilling operators, such as requiring that any applications for drilling projects meet heightened safety standards. In addition, the government put in place workplace safety rules intended to force offshore oil operators to anticipate worst-case scenarios for accidents and spills and to design plans to deal with accidents when they happen.

“It’s about time the federal government tightened the safety rules on offshore drilling. This is an inherently risky process, as we learned in 2010 when the BP well exploded,” Jacqueline Savitz, U.S. vice president for the environmental advocacy group Oceana, said in a statement. “The impacts of that spill are still being felt in the Gulf, in coastal communities and ecosystems.”

She said the rule issued Thursday is “absolutely not sufficient to protect our oceans, but it is a significant improvement over the status quo and addresses some of the blowout-related concerns raised by various commissions following the BP disaster in 2010.” The only way to ensure there will never be another disaster of the magnitude of Deepwater Horizon, she said, would be to stop offshore drilling altogether.

Representatives from the oil and gas industry, who have expressed concerns about the potential cost of the new rule and say it could hinder investment in the Gulf, said they were reviewing the hundreds of pages of new regulations Thursday.

“We are committed to safe operations and support efforts by the government to build upon the progress already made by the industry on safety,” Erik Milito, director of upstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement “We must make sure that technical changes were made to aspects of the government’s initial proposal that could have made offshore operations less safe.”

The Interior Department said it plans to phase in the new regulations over several years. According to documents published Thursday, the new requirements are estimated to cost the oil and gas energy roughly $890 million over the next decade to implement, while providing an estimated $636 million in benefits during that time from such factors a lowered risk of oil spills and workplace accidents.

Read more:

White House tightens oil-drilling rules as BP spill anniversary nears

Justice Department reaches $18.7 billion agreement in principle with BP

BP oil spill plus 5: Why it’ll happen again