Environment /

Biden Admin Pushes to Bolster Safety on Offshore Oil & Gas Rigs

New rules would reverse Department of the Interior policies enacted under the Trump administration


The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a new rule aimed at bolstering safety standards and oversight of offshore oil and gas operations.

New changes in safety standards follow the Department’s review of current rules, pursuant to a 2021 executive order from President Biden.

Proposed amendments to 2019 rules would be “narrowly focused” to improve offshore oil rigs that use blowout preventer (BOP) technologies.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to the highest standards of worker safety and environmental protections. This proposed rulemaking will help ensure that offshore energy development utilizes the latest science and technology to keep people safe,” DOI Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release. “As our nation transitions to a clean energy economy, we must commit to strengthening and modernizing offshore energy standards and oversight.”

According to the law firm Schmidt & Clark, LLP, there are three types of blowouts that can cause devastating consequences:

Surface Blowouts: The most common type, which may harm the rig and surrounding area, cause a catastrophic or deadly explosion.

Underground Blowouts: Less common, where high-pressure formations flows to low-pressure formations.

Underwater Blowouts: Extremely difficult to manage, a classic example being the Deepwater Horizon well disaster in 2010 (also referred to as the “BP Oil Spill”).

BOPs are mechanical devices mounted on the top of an oil well that seal, control, and monitor wells to prevent blowouts.

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon event, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) adopted safety recommendations from investigators, which led to the publication of the 2016 Well Control Rule, the DOI says. In 2019, BSEE updated guidelines that, according to federal officials in the Biden administration, “weakened certain safety provisions.”

The new rule changes being proposed this week would amend some of the items that were revised or rescinded in 2019.

“Protecting human lives and the environment has always been BSEE’s highest priority, and this proposed rulemaking will further ensure safe and environmentally responsible offshore energy production,” said BSEE Director Kevin M. Sligh Sr. “These proposed revisions to the Well Control Rule are the result of knowledge and experience gained by stakeholders and BSEE since the 2019 rule was implemented. They will protect workers’ lives and the environment from the potentially devastating effects of blowouts and offshore oil spills.”

The DOI’s statement says it is proposing revisions that would:

  • Require blowout preventer systems (BOPs) to be able to close and seal the wellbore to the well’s kick tolerance design at all times
  • Remove the option for operators to submit failure data to designated third parties and instead require the direct submittal of failure data to BSEE
  • Require failure analysis and investigations to start within 90 days instead of 120 days;
  • Require independent third parties to be accredited by a qualified standards development organization
  • Specify that surface BOPs on existing floating facilities must follow the dual shear ram requirements when replacing an entire BOP stack
  • Require that remotely operated vehicles be capable of opening and closing each shear ram on a BOP
  • Require the operator to provide test results to BSEE within 72 hours after completion of the tests if BSEE is unable to witness testing.

Public comment on the agency’s proposed rule changes will be accepted for 60 days after the date of publication listed in the federal register.

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