Republican lawmakers on Tuesday criticized recently proposed federal regulations aimed at improving offshore oil drilling safety and adding additional oversight of drilling equipment used to seal a well in an emergency.
The proposed regulations, announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior in April, address issues with offshore drilling equipment used to control a runaway well. The new measures are aimed at addressing recent safety recommendations and closing gaps in oversight of key last-ditch equipment that ultimately failed when BP’s Macondo well blew out in April 2010 and was later targeted by federal safety regulators as being due for a closer look.
The rule also includes changes to other aspects of drilling operations, including well design, casing, cementing and real-time monitoring between offshore operators and technical experts. The proposal marks the latest proposed changes five years after the deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spurred a major revamp of the federal agencies that oversee offshore drilling.
Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources sounded off about the proposed regulations Tuesday during a field hearing in New Orleans that focused on the state of the drilling industry.
Eight Republican lawmakers, including Rep. John Fleming, of Minden, and Rep. Garret Graves, of Baton Rouge, attended the hearing. U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and David Vitter also addressed committee members.
Vitter opened his remarks by recalling the names of the 11 men who were killed when the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and exploded. After, Vitter blasted what he described as the Obama administration’s “shortsighted and knee-jerk reaction” to the accident, “in which they imposed a six-month drilling moratorium and, after that, a de facto moratorium or ‘permitorium’ that only compounded the devastation of the spill.”
In a memo issued before the hearing, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, of Utah, the committee’s chairman, expressed skepticism about the new regulations, which he wrote “have the potential to not only hinder future growth in the Gulf but cause another unintended moratorium in offshore activity.”
Bishop’s memo said the new regulations would mean that 63 percent of wells that have been drilled in the Gulf since the disaster would not be in compliance. At the start of Tuesday’s hearing, he said he believed some of the new regulations would “actually undermine safety rather than enhance” it.
Lars Herbst, the regional director for the Gulf for the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore drilling, defended the proposed regulations as being designed to prevent accidents like one that occurred in 2013 when a natural gas well blew out about 55 miles off Grand Isle’s coast. The rig, which was being leased by Walter Oil & Gas Corp., the Houston oil and production company that was drilling the well, caught fire and burned for days, resulting in a loss that reached in the tens of millions of dollars.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Graves pressed Herbst about the financial impact to the Gulf region if oil production wanes because of the added costs from the proposed changes. Graves ticked off a list of other changes that he said the industry has already implemented on its own, and criticized federal regulators for lacking “an intimate understanding or knowledge of what the industry’s actually doing.”
“The frustration or the concern I have is that you’ve got folks sitting in ivory towers that are writing these regulations that have no actual understanding of what’s happening on the ground,” Graves told Herbst.
He added: “I think that disconnect is very dangerous.”
Lori Davis, president of Rig-Chem, a Houma company that supplies chemicals to the offshore oil industry, testified that she lost a majority of her business during the 2010 moratorium on offshore drilling. Despite the hard time it brought on, Davis said she believed her firm could make it through another downturn like that, a remark that drew visible surprise from Bishop and other committee members.
“I just don’t know what implications would be, but we are survivors and we’ve worked though many challenges,” she said. “I think we’d still be here. We could find a way to work.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.