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Oil Industry Delivers Well Control, Subsea Containment Capability; Ball Rests in BOEM’s Court

17 February 2011

A coalition of ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Shell completed a Marine Well Containment System capable of plugging wells more than a mile below the ocean’s surface. The new system – which can be deployed in a day to seal off or direct hydrocarbons from an uncontrolled well blowout – represents a significant technological breakthrough and an investment on the part of the industry’s safest producers to ensure that any future spills, no matter how unlikely, are contained before large volumes could be released into the environment.

This fast paced progress in the private sector stands in stark contrast to the snail’s pace work being done on the federal government’s side.

Over ten months into the President’s ‘six month’ deepwater drilling moratorium, the only activity we’ve seen in the Gulf is an extension of the Administration’s ban to include shallow water as well. The Interior Department has gone forward with changes to offshore regulator MMS. The new regulatory body, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEM), has drawn up plans to divide where fees and payments are processed from the actual inspectors and has talked about plans to hire new inspectors for over seven months now. Meanwhile, offshore permitting has come to a virtual standstill.

BOEM head, Michael Bromwich, defends his new agency and has touted its issuance of 31 new shallow water permits since June. The rate represents an alarming decline from previous years even though the drilling ban wasn’t meant to cover shallow water operations. This federal foot dragging has caused a great deal of uncertainty around U.S. drilling operations going forward. The new, inefficient agency being spawned inside the Interior would be wise to take a hint from the private sector in this case and get the ball rolling.

BOEM has blamed a lack of funding. This shouldn’t be a surprise since it receives a portion of its funding from the very offshore activity it has stalled. But for Gulf residents, money problems are the last thing they want to hear from federal regulators.

Thousands of companies in the energy sector are nearing the point of collapse after almost a year of inactivity. Seahawk Drilling, a major player in Gulf shallow water drilling, is the most high profile victim of this policy, filing for bankruptcy just last week. Houston Chronicle columnist Loren Steffy reported that the company had 11 drilling projects stalled “in various stages of the permitting process.” Now local residents and state politicians alike are using it as a rallying cry to restart the energy industry so vital to the region.

That is where the Marine Well Containment System comes in.

The new well sealing system is the guarantee many have been looking for to quiet the opponents of the oil and gas industry who are using the spill to hammer the false argument that drilling isn’t safe. Current industry best practices rely on a massive hydraulically powered sheers on well Blowout Preventer’s (BOP) to pinch a pipe shut and seal it as the final defense from losing well control. BOPs have been used numerous times to successfully handle gas kicks like the one that caused a fireball to erupt aboard the Deepwater Horizon. The Marine Well Containment System is the industry’s guarantee to the country that technology will be available to address the issue.