Deepwater drilling safety doubts multiply

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Doubts about the current safety and liability procedures for deepwater drilling are growing after criticism by statutory agencies on both sides of the Atlantic.

A British parliamentary energy and climate change committee report published last week (6 January) found serious shortcomings in safety and liability arrangements for dealing with potential disasters in planned deepwater wells in the North Sea, off the western Shetland Islands.

Oil companies are already drilling in four Shetlands fields and hundreds of new wells are expected to open up in the years ahead.

In the US, an advance chapter of a long-anticipated US National Oil Spill Commission report into the Gulf of Mexico disaster, set to be published tomorrow (11 January), issued scathing criticisms of the safety precautions in place on the Deepwater Horizon rig.  

Whether purposeful or not, safety decisions made by BP, Halliburton and Transocean saved them time and money, according to the report, which claimed that without remedial action, such a disaster could recur.

"In light of the potential consequences, it is no longer acceptable to rely on a system that requires the right person to be looking at the right data at the right time, and then to understand its significance in spite of simultaneous activities and other monitoring responsibilities," the chapter reads.

Although the British parliamentary report ruled against a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the North Sea, Europe's largest offshore oil field, it voiced "serious doubts" about current safety procedures.

It also recommended extending the 'polluter pays' principle to ensure that taxpayers do not end up paying for any future disasters.  

Marlene Holzner, a spokesperson for EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, said the EU was currently considering the very same issues in a period of consultation that is expected to culminate in new EU legislative proposals.

"We will tackle all those issues," she said. "It's about the liability of companies, when they have to pay, how much, and in what circumstances, the question of contingency plans and financial capacity. These are all topics that we want to tackle in this package, which will come out hopefully before the end of the summer break."

In a communiqué issued last October, the energy commissioner recommended granting licences for new drilling only where oil companies could demonstrate a contingency plan and the financial means to pay for potential environmental damage.

It also called for oil platforms controlled by national authorities to be evaluated by independent experts, and for oil companies to be made liable for repairing environmental damage within a 200 nautical mile zone from the coast after any accident.

On April 20, BP's Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast exploded, killing 11 workers and polluting the sea with 4.9 million barrels of oil. Environmental groups – and, initially, EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger – called for a moratorium on deepwater drilling.

However, faced with strong opposition from oil companies and some EU member states, the European Commission later softened its position to one of advocating a voluntary moratorium and improved safety and liability standards and procedures.  

Figures from the UK government's Health and Safety Executive show that serious accidents from rigs operating off the UK coast almost doubled from 106 per 100,000 in 2008/09 to 192 last year, while spills of hydrocarbons were up from 61 to 85.

In a proposal presented on 13 October 2010, the European Commission said that for the first time, it envisaged comprehensive EU legislation on oil platforms aimed at ensuring the highest safety standards in the world.

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