After BP Disaster, Is Gulf Drilling Safer?

  • Curtis Bruce in Leeville, La. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • Along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, the offshore drilling industry has returned four years after BP. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • Jay O'Connor at Shell's Robert, La. training center teaches students what mistakes BP made in its 2010 spill. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

September 26, 2014

Under a strong Gulf Coast sun, Curtis Bruce stands before a dock in Leeville, La., a spit of land surrounded by coastal marshes near the Gulf of Mexico. Bruce, of the New Orleans-based Clean Gulf Associates, leads a busload of reporters up a gangway onto the H.I. Rich, a 95-foot oil skimmer.

On deck, he points to a set of bright yellow brushes that look like they could have come from a car wash.

“The brushes are a special kind of material. What it does, the oil adheres to it, but not the water,” Bruce tells a small group of reporters in Louisiana for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference.

Bruce’s employer, Clean Gulf, is an industry-run coop that responds to oil spills. After the BP oil spill, Clean Gulf bought the H.I. Rich to help bolster its rapid-response fleet. The skimmer can hold up to 10,000 gallons of recovered oil in onboard tanks. Its sophisticated infrared cameras allow it to navigate and spot oil at night—a big upgrade from the daylight-only operations its cleanup boats deployed after the BP spill could muster.

The blowout killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. It spewed five million barrels of oil into the Gulf. The spill fouled scores of miles of beaches in southern Louisiana and killed thousands of seabirds, fish, and other wildlife.  Bruce was part of the massive cleanup effort that got underway after the blowout occured, in April, 2010.

“I’m glad to say I was a part of it, but I hope it never happens again,” Bruce says. “It was something...the environment and the people here, the impact it had to the local people was pretty significant.”

REGULATOR: HALTING DRILLING 'THE RIGHT THING TO DO'

Four years after the BP spill, drilling in the Gulf has returned. But much about the industry has changed, as a direct result of the lessons learned from the BP spill.

Michael Bromwich says those changes make drilling offshore far safer than it was at the time of the spill. Bromwich was brought in by President Obama in 2010 to head up the federal response to the spill. One of his first actions was to finalize a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf. It was an unpopular decision in oil and gas-dependent Louisiana. But Bromwich said he had to do it.

“To this day I think it was the right thing to do for a number of reasons, in part so that the government could get its bearings, and figure out what needed to be done,” he says. 

What needed to be done, Bromwich says, was to make sure companies drilling in deep water could contain a Macondo-like spill. Even after the moratorium was lifted in the fall of 2010, the government didn’t grant new drilling permits until the following year. By then, companies had developed better containment plans. 

“The truth is I would have had to have been clinically insane to approve the granting of drilling permits before the containment capabilities were available,” Bromwich says. 

After instituting reforms to safety protocols, and reorganizing the federal agency in charge of offshore drilling, the former Mineral Management Services, the government began issuing new drilling permits in 2011.

PREVENTING ANOTHER 'BP'

Slowly offshore workers began returning to the Gulf. Many who went out to work on drilling rigs run by Shell went through the classroom of Jay O'Connor. 

Jay O’Connor, an instructor at Shell’s Robert, La. offshore drilling training center, sees BP as a learning opportunity. In a well-air-conditioned room, he stands in front of several screens showing simulations of drilling along the ocean floor.

“We go through Macondo, from what happened before (the blowout) to the end point. We spend three-quarters of a day on that, going through all the different things those guys missed,” O’Connor says.

O’Connor spends his days stressing to his trainees Shell’s system of multiple layers of offshore protection. That includes redundant barriers on all offshore wells—so that a malfunction in one part of a well doesn’t become something much worse.

“That should—if we do our job correctly—prevent Shell from having an incident like BP had,” O’Connor says. 

O’Connor says drillers can make $180,000 a year on a deepwater rig. But he won’t let them out of his class unless they understand the many layers of safety. And he’s pretty direct about what’s expected.

“If they can’t do what we need them to do...we give ‘em the yellow pages, we give ‘em the want ads, and say maybe you should find another line of work. You don’t make a lot of friends doing this, but...my job is to make sure they know what they’re doing when they’re out there.”