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Deepwater Drilling: Is It Safe Now?

Regan Nelson

Posted March 1, 2011

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Yesterday, Secretary Salazar approved the first deepwater drilling permit since the tragic Gulf oil disaster last April.  The permit was awarded to Noble Energy, to drill a well in 6,500 feet of water, located 70 miles offshore from Venice, Louisiana.

The well to be drilled is deeper and farther offshore than BP’s Macondo well which, after it blew, took nearly three months to be contained.  During those three months, approximately 170 million gallons of oil bled into the rich Gulf marine waters – the largest US oil spill in history.  The people and marine ecosystems in the Gulf are still staggering under the devastating impact of this blowout.

We are assured that things are different now.  Laudably, the Administration has made strong reforms that increase safety standards to better protect workers and to lessen the likelihood of oversights that could lead to a blowout. 

Yet, if Noble Energy’s new deepwater well were to experience a blowout – what could we expect?

Well, there are now two industry-designed systems that have been built in the aftermath of the Macondo explosion that industry claims as being capable of containing a deep-sea blowout:  the Marine Well Containment System and the Helix Fast Response System.  Both systems estimate it would take somewhere between 10 days to three weeks to deploy and engage their systems to the blown well.  

(Puzzlingly, the Interior Department says that Noble Energy has contracted with Helix, which “meets the requirements” of responding to a blowout on this well.  However, the Times-Picayune reported that for now, Helix is only capable of containing 50,000 barrels/day and only in waters up to 5,600 feet – far short of the depth and flow potential of Noble Energy’s well).

Noble Energy’s permit says that should they lose control of their well in a worst-case scenario blowout, they estimate 69,700 barrels of oil per day would spew into the Gulf of Mexico.

So, let's do the math: 69,700 b/d of oil multiplied by 10 days means that if Noble Energy’s well experiences a blowout, we’d have a minimum of 29 million gallons of oil polluting the Gulf ecosystem (not to mention the attendant chemical dispersants that would likely be used).  If it took three weeks, we could see 60 million gallons of oil – nearly the equivalent of six Exxon Valdez disasters – spewed into the Gulf.

That doesn’t sound that safe to me.

Consider further that Congress still hasn’t done anything to protect American taxpayers and victims of an oil spill from damages beyond $75 million dollars. 

How can DOI feel confident that an adequate response is in place?


Tell your Congressman to take action and pass oil spill reforms now – TAKE ACTION HERE.

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