Feds give new guidelines for offshore oil spill response plans

08 11, 2012 by Fuel Fix

Federal regulators on Friday gave offshore drilling operators the most specific instructions yet for how the companies should prove they are ready to respond to oil spills.

The guidance came in the form of a “notice to lessees” issued late Friday by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The 41-page document outlines standards for the oil spill response plans that are required of companies drilling on the nation’s outer continental shelf. The plans document exactly what resources companies have to respond to spills from their offshore operations, including exploratory drilling as well as producing wells.

With the notice, the bureau is pushing oil and gas companies to adopt “flexible and innovative offshore oil spill response techniques” — even if those approaches or equipment don’t already have a rating for the amount of oil they can recover on any given day.

For instance, while some longstanding oil removal equipment, including skimmers, has been rated for its daily recovery capacity, that isn’t the case with more cutting-edge technology.

“BSEE encourages you to use new technology and response systems that will increase the effectiveness of mechanical recovery tactics,” the bureau said, adding that its review will consider “the complete response strategy” that companies detail.

Current regulations require offshore operators to show plans to support oil spill responses for worst-case scenarios where the spills last 30 days.

But in the notice issued Friday, the bureau made clear that operators should go beyond that and describe how they would get supplies in case a spill continued gushing unchecked for even longer — as did the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill that led to the creation of the bureau and the new response rules.

The notice does not change existing regulations, but it sheds more light on what acceptable oil spill response plans should look like — and how regulators are judging them.

Some environmentalists have complained that the standards for judging spill response plans have been opaque.

BSEE Director James Watson stressed that his agency has “been using (its) existing authority to require more robust plans for some time now, and this NTL clarifies that approach for the industry and the public.”