Washington, DC — Just days before the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP pressed the Canadian government to rescind its long-standing policy that all exploratory wells must have “a relief well ready in case of a blowout,” according to Canadian documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The absence of a ready relief well in the Gulf of Mexico means that the Deepwater Horizon spill may continue to gush unabated through August.
In its March 22, 2010 filing with Canada’s National Energy Board, BP maintained that rapid relief well capacity in the same season that the original well is sunk “is not required and is problematical to BP” due to additional time and expense. Citing extensive expertise gained in the Gulf of Mexico, BP contended –
- In the event of a blowout “it will always be preferable to re-establish and remain working with the existing well rather than initiating a relief well” (emphasis added); and
- “BP recognizes that cost implications per se should not be a driving force in this review [but] additional certainty and clarity on dealing with the approach to well control generally, and relief wells in particular, are required now.”
The Canadian “same season” (i.e., within 90 to 100 days) relief well policy was established in 1976 in order “to significantly reduce the damage to the environment that would result if an oil blowout continued to release oil throughout the…season unchecked” according to a government report. That is precisely the present predicament in the Gulf of Mexico where an array of tactics short of a relief well have failed.
“Drilling a relief well simultaneously with a deepwater exploratory well is one of a number of safety measures that we should have been looking at,” said PEER Board Member Rick Steiner, a noted marine professor and conservationist who tracked the Exxon Valdez spill. "Had the Deepwater Horizon had a companion relief well along side, this blowout would have been killed weeks ago, not months from now."
While many of BP’s claims in its March 2010 filing do not hold up well even in this recent hindsight, one statement rang eerily on point:
“BP understands that BP's privilege to operate depends on BP's maintaining the confidence of the public and regulators, and that a blow-out - however mitigated - could seriously undermine this confidence.”
PEER also posted a July 2007 paper by U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) staff which found that the U.S. has experienced 126 blowouts in offshore rigs between 1971 and 2006, a rate of more than 3½ such events per year. While the paper noted some encouraging trends it concluded that “The percentage of blowouts during or after the cementing operations increased significantly during this period.” The BP Deepwater Horizon blowout also occurred during this phase.
“If MMS is counting more than three blowouts a year why didn’t the BP Gulf Spill Response Plan envision a deep water blowout as a possible scenario?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who has voiced concern that merely breaking up MMS will not improve regulatory outcomes. “Same season relief wells are one of a number of safety measures undertaken by other countries that we should have been looking at, and should seriously consider emulating. The U.S. likes to think that it is always the most advanced but being number one in oil spills is not anything to brag about.”