The Obama administration on Thursday announced new rules requiring that offshore drilling rigs certify they have working blowout preventers and standards for cementing wells.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the new rules will improve safety and reduce the chance of catastrophic blowouts such as the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said the rules also should improve workplace safety by reducing the risk of human error.
"We are raising the bar for safety, oversight and environmental protection," Salazar said Thursday in a speech at a Washington think tank. "The oil and gas industry needs to expect a dynamic regulatory environment as we bring the U.S.'s offshore programs up to the gold standard we need to have."
Under the new rules, operators will be required to comply with tougher requirements for everything from well design and cementing practices to blowout preventers and employee training, Salazar said. They will also need to develop comprehensive plans to manage risks and improve workplace safety, he said.
Salazar has said the new rules must be in place before the Interior Department lifts a ban on deepwater drilling. The ban is set to expire Nov. 30, but officials have said they hope to end it early.
Salazar offered no timetable Thursday for lifting the drilling freeze, but said he will not do so "until I am comfortable we have significantly reduced those risks" of deepwater drilling.
The rules announced Thursday are not the final step, Salazar said, noting that the Interior Department is likely to propose requiring that emergency cutoff devices known as blowout preventers have a second set of blind shear rams — the parts that can shear off and shut down wells in the event of a catastrophic blowout.
A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said the oil industry group will review the rule and offer comments. The API has called for a clear, practical and well-defined review process that will protect the environment and allow drilling to resume.
"We cannot have an approval process that creates unpredictable delays that could place at risk the flow of domestic energy in our country," said Erik Milito, an API official. "Operators want regulations that provide certainty."
Extended delays in permit reviews and approvals are likely to discourage investment in new projects — hampering job creation and restricting energy production, Milito said.
Even after the temporary ban on exploratory drilling is lifted, drilling is unlikely to resume quickly.
"You're not going to see drilling going on the next day, or even the next week," Michael Bromwich, director of the agency that oversees offshore drilling, said this week. "It's going to take some time."
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