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US unveils proposed new offshore oil spill regulations

15 April 2015

Five years after the country’s worst maritime petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration announced plans on April 13 to tighten regulations for offshore oil rigs, saying the new measures would help minimise casualties and environmental damage from future leaks.

The proposals announced by the Interior Department would substantially overhaul the technical guidelines for drilling on the US continental shelf, adding dozens of new requirements aimed mostly at stopping high-pressure undersea wells from blowing out.

They incorporate numerous technical recommendations from the petroleum industry, which conducted its own investigations of the 2010 spill. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s largest trade association, said it was reviewing the proposals and hoped they would complement voluntary safety measures already put in place since the accident.

Many of the proposal’s technical requirements address systems known as blowout preventers, or BOPs, one of multiple points of failure in the 2010 accident. Under the new rules, both well heads and BOPs would have to be built to more stringent standards and subjected to rigorous monitoring, mandatory reporting and regular testing. Other proposals would raise requirements for containment gear to capture any spilled oil from an undersea leak.

The proposed rule, which will be open for public comments, addresses the range of systems and equipment related to well control operations. The measures are designed to improve equipment reliability, building upon enhanced industry standards for blowout preventers and blowout prevention technologies. The rule also includes reforms in well design, well control, casing, cementing, real-time well monitoring and subsea containment.

The well control measures would implement multiple recommendations from various investigations and reports of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement/U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation-Forensic Equipment Analysis (September 2011); National Academy of Engineering (May 2012); National Oil Spill Commission (January 2011); Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee; Government Accountability Office and others. Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) thoroughly analysed the results of the investigations, including nearly 370 specific recommendations, and conducted extensive outreach to derive further enhancements from stakeholder input, academia, and industry best practices, standards and specifications.

The blowout preventer, an essential piece of safety equipment used in offshore drilling operations, was a point of failure in the Deepwater Horizon event, but several other barriers failed as well. The cascade of multiple failures resulted in the loss of well control, an explosion, fire and subsequent months-long spill. In connection with this rulemaking, BSEE worked with a wide array of stakeholders to comprehensively address well control measures and equipment.
“We worked to collect the best ideas on the prevention of well control incidents and blowouts to develop this proposed rule – including knowledge and skillsets from industry and equipment managers,” said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider. “This rule proposes both prescriptive and performance-based standards that are based on this extensive engagement and analysis.”

In May 2012, BSEE’s offshore energy safety forum brought together federal policy makers, industry, academia, and others to discuss additional steps the Bureau and the industry could take to continue to improve the reliability and safety of blowout preventers. Following the forum, BSEE received significant input and specific recommendations from industry groups, operators, equipment manufacturers, and environmental organizations.

“In addition to more stringent design requirements, the proposed rule requires improved controls of all repair and maintenance activities through the lifecycle of the blowout preventer and other well control equipment,” said BSEE Director Brian Salerno. “It would provide verification of the performance of equipment designs through third party verification, enhanced oversight of operations through real-time monitoring viewed onshore, and require operators to, during operations, utilize recognized engineering best standards that reduce risk.”

The public may submit comments on the proposed regulations during the 60-day comment period that begins April 15, 2015, when the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register. Comments may be submitted via, the federal government's official rulemaking portal. T

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