The drilling experts speak out on the Obama deepwater moratorium.
When President Obama last month announced his six-month deepwater moratorium, he pointed to an Interior Department report of new “safety” recommendations. That report prominently noted that the recommendations it contained—including the six-month drilling ban—had been “peer-reviewed” by “experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering.” It also boasted that Interior “consulted with a wide range” of other experts. The clear implication was that the nation’s drilling brain trust agreed a moratorium was necessary.
As these columns reported last week, the opposite is true. In a scathing document, eight of the “experts” the Administration listed in its report said their names had been “used” to “justify” a “political decision.” The draft they reviewed had not included a six-month drilling moratorium. The Administration added that provision only after it had secured sign-off. In their document, the eight forcefully rejected a moratorium, which they argued could prove more economically devastating than the oil spill itself and “counterproductive” to “safety.”
We decided to call some of these experts ourselves. Their information, and concerns, are revealing.
The experts were certainly under the impression they were reviewing a comprehensive document, as some of the recommendations would take six months or even a year to implement. And the report they agreed to did address moratoria: It recommended a six-month ban on new deepwater permits. Yet Benton Baugh, president of Radoil, said that in at least two separate hour-and-a-half phone calls among Interior and the experts, there was no discussion of a moratorium on existing drilling. “Because if anybody had [made that suggestion], we’d have said ‘that’s craziness.’”
Ken Arnold, an engineer and consultant, said the changes went beyond just the drilling moratorium. The Interior draft he looked at included timelines for each safety recommendation. The “bulk” of those recommendations, he explained, were all ones that could be done within 30 days. And most of the longer-term provisions would result in only “marginal increases in safety.”
Yet when the final report came out, the timelines he saw had been removed, no doubt because they argued against the necessity of a six-month moratorium. Mr. Arnold adds that the Administration’s decision to allow industry to continue drilling “gas injection wells”—which, he says, are no more risky than production wells—only shows the moratorium makes “no sense.”
“This was a political call; this was not a technical call,” says Mr. Arnold. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has since testified that the call was his. But Robert Bea, from the University of California at Berkeley, who also reviewed the report, told us Interior had sent him a letter that “stated clearly that [the moratorium] had been inserted at the request of the White House.” Mr. Bea pointed out that the Department of Interior is more than equipped to target and shut down specific Gulf operations that might offer safety concerns. There was no call for a moratorium “for industry as a whole.”
Ford Brett, managing director of Petroskills and also a reviewer, notes that the experts first went to the Interior Department with their concerns. “All they had to do was put out another press release—one sentence long—clarifying that we hadn’t reviewed the drilling moratorium. . . .That didn’t happen.” Only then did the experts go public.
Several reviewers said they had, in fact, received “apology” notes from the Interior Department acknowledging the misrepresentation. “We did not mean to imply that you also agreed with the decision to impose a moratorium on all new deepwater drilling,” read one.
All of this matters because it offers proof the moratorium was driven by politics, not safety. The drilling ban was not reviewed by experts, and was not necessary to satisfy most of the safety recommendations in Mr. Salazar’s report. It was authored by political actors so Mr. Obama could look tough. A cynic might argue the ban was only added after review precisely because the Administration knew experts would refuse to endorse it.
A big reason why those experts would have balked is because they recognize that the moratorium is indeed a threat to safety. Mr. Arnold offers at least four reasons why.
The ban requires oil companies to abandon uncompleted wells. The process of discontinuing a well, and then later re-entering it, introduces unnecessary risk. He notes BP was in the process of abandoning its well when the blowout happened.
The ban is going to push drilling rigs to take jobs in other countries. “The ones that go first will be the newest, biggest, safest rigs, because they are most in demand. The ones that go last and come back first are the ones that aren’t as modern,” says Mr. Arnold.
The indeterminate nature of this ban will encourage experienced crew members to seek other lines of work—perhaps permanently. Restarting after a ban will bring with it a “greater mix of new people who will need to be trained.” The BP event is already pointing, in part, to human error, and the risk of that will increase with a less experienced crew base. Finally, a ban will result in more oil being imported on tankers, which are “more likely” to spill oil than local production.
All this is even before raising ban’s economic consequences, which already threaten tens of thousands of jobs. This is why Louisiana politicians are now pleading with the Administration to back off a ban that is sending the Gulf’s biggest industry to its grave.