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Ahead of BP Spill Anniversary, the Obama Administration Has Proposed New Gulf of Mexico Drilling Rules

Gulf residents, environmentalists, and a former regulator say the rules are too little, too late.
April 15, 2015, 9:30pm
Imagen vía Rainforest Action Network

On April 20, 2010 a well blowout at a BP oil rig caused the deaths of 11 workers and nearly five million barrels of oil to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

Five years later the federal government has proposed new regulations to prevent another catastrophic accident in the Gulf.

"[W]e're releasing one of the most significant safety and environmental protection reforms that the department has launched as part of President Obama's commitment to ensure the responsible development of America's domestic energy resources," Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) said this week in announcing the rules.

The department has called BP's Deepwater Horizon accident a "cascade of failures," which stemmed from poor management, crew errors, an unstable cement casing that allowed oil to push out of the well, and a faulty blowout preventer, which was the last, best hope of preventing the disaster.

The new rules strengthen standards for blowout preventers, in addition to well design, cementing, real-time onshore monitoring of high-risk drilling, and containment of oil in the event of a blowout or spill.

Environmental groups, residents of the Gulf of Mexico, and a former top offshore drilling regulator, say the new rules are too little, too late.

Six Gulf of Mexico residents were arrested on Wednesday after staging a protest inside the main entrance to BP's Houston headquarters. (Photo via Rainforest Action Network)

Former Department of the Interior Minerals Management Service director, Liz Birnbaum, said the department's three to seven year grace period for compliance seems too lenient. "I am concerned about the fact that I know the industry can do this faster," she told VICE News. "It doesn't feel like they are pushing really hard on the timelines."

The American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade group representing the oil and natural gas industry, said in a statement that it has created or revised over 100 industry standards since 2010. Some of those are formalized in the DOI's new rule.

"A great deal of effort has been put into strengthening spill containment and response, but our first goal is always to prevent accidents from happening at all," API's industry operations director Erik Milito said. "Our industry is committed to meeting the nation's energy needs while maintaining safe and environmentally responsible operations."

**Related: **Scientists say an area the size of Rhode Island is coated with oil from the BP well explosion

The public has 60 days to comment on the regulations. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, an agency within DOI, has not set a date for finalizing the rules.

The regulations come as the Obama administration promotes drilling off the Atlantic coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off the coast of Alaska. Offshore drilling provides 16 percent of domestic oil production, according to DOI.

The agency says the number of drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico is greater today than prior to the BP spill — and is expected to increase over the coming year. Deepwater rigs are categorized as those drilled at 1,000 feet or more below the sea surface.

Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council says drilling risks will always overshadow the extent of federal regulatory protections. "What the industry and the government have done in the last five years is reduce some of the risk from an inherently dangerous operation at sea," he told VICE News. "But we haven't made it safe. It can't be made safe."

He added: "We need to stop going to the ends of the Earth for every last drop of oil we can find and reduce our reliance on that fuel and the danger and damage that comes with it."

On Wednesday, six Gulf of Mexico residents were arrested during a protest inside BP's Houston headquarters. One of them was Anne Rolfs of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental group.

"Let the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico be a cautionary tale: We should not drill in the Arctic. We should not drill off the Atlantic coast," she said. "In Louisiana, our oysters are dying, our fishermen are out of work."

**Related: **Nearly five years after the BP spill, animals are still dying in the Gulf of Mexico

Following the BP accident, the Obama administration reorganized the Minerals Management Service amid concerns that its duty to collect revenue and promote development conflicted with its safety and environmental enforcement mission. The administration also created new safety rules, increased inspections, and refined it's environmental reviews.

The regulatory reforms of the last five years, combined with the new rules announced by Jewell this week, represent genuine progress, albeit not enough, said Birnbaum.

"I think that the Department of the Interior, overall has developed a sense of responsibility for making sure these [safety] systems work," Birnbaum told VICE News. "Complacency is completely gone now."

That reduces the potential for another Deepwater Horizon-scale spill, she says, but it doesn't erase it.

"We're definitely still at risk," she said.

Follow Sarah Jane Keller on Twitter: @sjanekeller