Editor’s Note: In a recent News Meeting question, CJR asked readers what they wanted to know about the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A number of them weighed in with excellent questions, some of which we have tried to answer in the following post.
Why have the oil companies never made drilling a relief well next to every new well Standard Operating Procedure?
Over the last week, there has been some discussion of imposing such a requirement. On Monday, Huffington Post political reporter Sam Stein asked Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, who is overseeing the federal response to the oil spill, about the “benefits and shortcomings, going forward,” of requiring oil companies to drill relief wells simultaneously with new wells.
Stein wrote it up for the Huffington Post underneath a headline, “Thad Allen Advocates Pre-Emptive Relief Well Drilling To Mitigate Future Disasters,” which seems to overstate Allen’s support for the idea. During the press conference, Allen responded to Stein by saying, “I have not had that discussion. I think that would be a legitimate point to be raised and put in front of the commission as they do their work.” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs followed up with an even more equivocal reply: “I would say that would fall under, I think, Sam, the regulatory framework that the [independent presidential] commission [investigating the spill] will evaluate in order to determine the best way to operate this in a failsafe atmosphere, moving forward.”
Others are also curious about the mandatory relief well option. In a long article about the threat of hurricanes disrupting the oil-spill containment effort in the Gulf of Mexico, CNN quoted a representative of the Sierra Club calling for just such a requirement. The problem is the cost. The New York Times reported last week that the two relief wells that BP is now drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in order to shut down the Macondo well cost about $100 million each. And Dave Rensink, the incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, told CNN that the cost of drilling relief wells simultaneously with exploration and production wells would be prohibitive for the industry. “You only resort to a relief well when all other options are exhausted,” he said.
The same industry resistance surfaced only a few months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, when BP urged Canadian regulators to repeal a decades-old requirement that oil companies with leases in the Beaufort Sea have the capability to drill a relief well in the “same season” (due to winter sea ice, that means the summer) should a blowout occur. This is a far cry from mandating the simultaneous drilling of relief wells with other wells—but, apparently, even having to be prepared to drill a relief well seemed too onerous for BP.
“[F]or both technological and operational reasons, continuance of the [same-season relief well] capability is not required and is problematical for BP and other operators, and may well impede further exploration in the Beaufort Sea,” the company told (pdf) Canada’s National Energy Board.
BP’s resistance didn’t seem to get much attention at the time, but last week the U.S.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility issued a press release reminding journalists of the incident, which proved effective. CNN, NPR, Reuters, and others have since picked up the story.
Why are volunteers and nonprofit wildlife groups not being allowed to help with wildlife cleanup? Who are the contractors and what do the wildlife biologists and wildlife rescue experts think about this? Where are the environmentalists—is our corporate media filtering them out?
Considering the significant damage the spill will inflict on Gulf ecosystems, surprisingly little media coverage has been given to environmentalists’ opinions, other than a quote here and there. This is probably due to the fact that, with millions of gallons of crude oil pouring into the Gulf, outrage has not been limited to greens. In a largely derided, but unfortunately well publicized, take on the issue, Sarah Palin claimed that environmentalists themselves were at fault for not allowing the oil companies to drill on land, thus forcing them out to places like the Gulf of Mexico.