WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday unveiled a final set of regulations on offshore and gas drilling, aimed at preventing the kind of equipment failures that caused the disastrous 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
The publication of the rules, which the administration released in draft form last year, is timed just ahead of the six-year anniversary of the April 20 explosion on a BP oil rig that killed 11 men and sent millions of barrels of oil into the gulf. The new rules come as the Obama administration has proposed opening up some pristine Arctic waters off Alaska to new drilling, angering environmentalists.
The rules represent the final in a series of actions responding to the spill, including tougher inspection requirements and an overhaul of the government agencies that oversee . The rules announced Thursday are intended to tighten the safety requirements on underwater drilling equipment and well-control operations.
In particular, the new rules will tighten controls on blowout preventers, the industry-standard devices that are the last line of protection to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells. The 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig was caused in part when a section of drill pipe buckled, prompting the malfunction of a supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer on a BP well.
The rules also add tougher requirements to the design of undersea wells and the lining that coats the wells, as well as real-time monitoring of subsea drilling and spill containment.
“The well-control rule is a vital part of our extensive reform agenda to strengthen, update and modernize our offshore energy program using lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. She praised her agency’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which developed the rule, saying that it “takes into consideration an intensive analysis of the causes of the tragedy, advances in industry standards, best practices, as well as an unprecedented level of stakeholder outreach.”
Environmentalists have been highly skeptical of the new rules. Opponents of offshore drilling have acknowledged the need for tougher safety requirements on drilling equipment, but they have also noted that a panel appointed by President Obama to investigate the spill concluded that the chief cause of the disaster was not the blowout preventer but a broader failure of oversight by the drilling companies and by government regulators assigned to police them.
Administration officials said the final rules put forward on Thursday would improve the safety both of equipment and oversight.
The new regulations would require an outside organization to conduct annual assessments of the mechanical integrity of blowout preventers, including a requirement that the equipment be maintained according to the manufacturers’ original performance standards. It would also require constant monitoring, using undersea video and other equipment, of deepwater and other high-pressure, high-risk drilling activities.
In terms of equipment, the new regulations would require that blowout preventers be fitted with two devices, called , to provide a backup in case of equipment failure. A 2014 report by the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent government watchdog, concluded that in the 2010 disaster the blowout preventer’s shear ram, an emergency hydraulic tool with two cutting blades, punctured the pipe and sent oil and gas gushing to the surface.
The study found that the drill pipe had buckled under the tremendous pressure of the oil and gas rising from the well from the initial blowout. A backup shear ram could improve the likelihood that the equipment would seal off the pipe before it blows out.
Representatives of the oil industry said they were reviewing the new rules closely.
“We are committed to safe operations and support efforts by the government to build upon the progress already made by the industry on safety,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for the oil industry. “Energy development in the Gulf of Mexico has helped make the U.S. the No. 1 producer of the oil and natural gas in the world, and has made us energy secure. This rule will affect every offshore energy project for years to come. It is essential to get it right.”
But some advocacy groups criticized the rule as too little, too late.
“The fact that it has taken six years to get this rule out is a stunning indictment of our regulatory process: It moves far too slowly,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen, a nonprofit government watchdog group, in a statement. “Even in the wake of historic deregulatory disasters like the BP oil spill, our regulatory system takes years to address glaring safety gaps that devastate working families, consumers and our environment.”