Senators' quandary in BP oil spill hearing: safety vs. jobs

A Senate hearing Wednesday looked at the recommendations of the presidential study commissioned after the BP oil spill. The study supports a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling, despite concerns that the pause will further harm the Gulf Coast economy.

Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sippa Press/Newscom
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies about offshore drilling safety standards before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. Republican senators expressed concern that a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling would mean lost oil industry jobs.

Senators on Wednesday bored into the big safety report on offshore oil exploration mandated by President Obama. They quizzed Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on what the federal government planned to do to make ocean drilling safer - but also on how to get drilling going again to save oil jobs.

The presidential safety study, released May 27, had been overshadowed by publicized attempts to cap the gusher 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. But Mr. Salazar said the many steps it recommends would help prevent future blowouts by setting up a robust new regulatory regime to verify the reliability of deepwater drilling and oil-well equipment before – and during – drilling of a well.

Responding to a range of questions about the dismantling of the Minerals Management Service, Mr. Salazar expressed confidence his reorganization of the agency would close the "revolving door" that saw employees often leave the agency for jobs in the oil industry. He also addressed efforts to estimate just how much oil is coming out of the well now, and said a new figure is coming soon.

IN PICTURES: Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

But Salazar pushed back at suggestions by some senators that drilling in deep water might get a reprieve to prevent the loss of oil and gas jobs before all the safety investigations had been concluded.

"If we are going to move forward with any kind of oil and gas production in the outer continental shelf ... it must be done in a safe manner," Salazar said. "Assumptions that were made about safety in the past are not assumptions that will be made in the future. To the extent that offshore drilling will continue, it has to be done in a manner that we can ensure can be done in a safe way."

An existing six-month moratorium on the issuance of permits for new deepwater wells would continue until the Presidential Commission investigating the BP oil spill has completed its review, he said.

"We are taking these immediate actions now, and we are laying the groundwork for additional measures in the future," Salazar said. "Key recommendations include a recertification of all blowout preventers for new floating drilling operations; stronger well control practices, blowout prevention and intervention procedures; tougher inspections for deepwater drilling operations; and expanded safety and training programs for rig workers."

The report's new recommendations require that any "floating drilling operation" – which means deepwater rigs – would be required to have:

  • Mandatory inspections of blowout preventers (BOPs) used on "floating drilling operation" to ensure they meet manufacturers’ design specifications, including modifications. Inspections would ensure the BOP is compatible with specific drilling equipment on the rig.
  • New safety features on BOPs and related backup and safety equipment. For example, BOPs would be required to have two sets of shear rams spaced at least four feet apart to prevent BOP failure if a thick uncuttable tool joint lay across one set of rams during an emergency.
  • New emergency back-up control systems and remote operating vehicle capabilities – along with new testing requirements to verify the capabilities of the equipment.
  • New rules to enhance the safety of well-control systems; verification of safeguards in place before drilling mud is taken out of the well, and training methods for dealing with blowouts.

But it was Salazar's offhand remark that he and the president had "hit the pause button" in adopting a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling that struck a chord with Republican senators. They quizzed him to find out just how long the "pause" would delay the oil and gas industry in pursuing new deepwater drilling.

The Gulf of Mexico has nearly 7,000 active leases, 64 percent of which are in deep water, the report stated. There are today about 3,600 oil-producing rigs and other structures in the Gulf accounting for 31 percent of total domestic oil production and 11 percent of US natural gas production. Add to that the majority of some 150,000 oil production jobs on the outer continental shelf.

Citing a letter by eight of 15 engineering experts that reviewed the 30-day safety review, several senators noted that the six-month moratorium was not the recommendation of the majority of the group.

"This report includes important recommendations," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (R) of Louisiana, but she said she agreed with the experts, that "this temporary pause, if it lasts very much longer than a few months ... could potentially wreak economic havoc that exceeds havoc wreaked by the spill itself."

Salazar said simply that the six-month moratorium was his and the president's determination – and not the oil experts’ – that the pause was needed.

That did not satisfy Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming, who noted he was "concerned about jobs and the economy" and the recently announced departure of some deepwater rigs for the coast of Brazil.

"I'm wondering if you are looking at any way of lifting the moratorium, pressing the pause button again sooner" than six months, he said. Salazar seemed to leave the door ajar to that.

"There's a possibility we could take a look at it before then," he said, "But right now we have multiple investigations" going and it would be "unwise for us to move forward with deepwater drilling unless we have before us those recommendations that we can implement."

IN PICTURES: Gulf oil spill's impact on nature


of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.