The Case for Ending the Deepwater Oil Ban

President Obama is taking plenty of heat over the matter from environmentalists, but the move might not be as terrible as they think.

offshore oil rig


Some of the emergency regulations put in place after the massive BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill have been eased, and the President is going to get roasted in the media on the matter by those who will accuse him of, once again, bowing to pressure from Republicans who’ve been pushing for the ease of rules. But not only is it an exercise is compromise both political and actual, it might not be that bad an idea.

The economic and political conflict on the matter revolves around how many drilling industry jobs and ancillary industries would be threatened by a ban on deepwater drilling: Estimates in the region of 23,000 have been published. Marathon Oil company, as Reuters
notes, has just canceled a four-year contract for a $752 million
deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico directly in response to the lack of
drilling permits. Thirteen companies had their ongoing projects stalled
when the clampdown occurred last year, and they can now get underway
again–freeing up millions of dollars more for related business.

But is deepwater drilling impossibly unsafe? The biggest difficulty in solving the BP disaster was gaining access to a wellhead that sat 5,000 feet under water–operating at that depth is technologically very hard, and the kind of equipment you’d use to fix a similar accident at, say, 500 feet of depth can’t be employed. Even the materials used to seal up the well behave differently under the pressure of 5,000 feet of water.

Much like NASA in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger accident, this could be the oil industry’s time to innovate. In response to the Deepwater Horizons disaster, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell are combining forces to create a deepwater well containment system that’s specifically crafted to prevent another accident of the same scale. One could argue that such a system should’ve been in place beforehand, (even that the government should’ve regulated for this facility, rather than regulating after the fact), but at least the lesson has been learned–and hopefully will be frequently revisited. Shell Upstream Industries’ EVP, John Hollowell, spoke about the matter recently, and noted that “the BP spill was a highly unlikely event, not the sort of occurrence that is likely to occur [sic] ever again,” because a “number of barriers failed” all at once. Plus, there’s now a facility in place to combat the problem in the unlikely event of another eco-wreck like Deepwater Horizon.

Government can’t be expected to resist the push to drill for more oil–particularly as 2011 yields to an election year in which the economy will certainly be a deciding factor, and despite the administration’s desire to switch to more environmentally friendly products, the U.S. economy is still desperately oil-thirsty (one in four autos runs on oil from the gulf)–and domestic oil is politically better, and makes more economic sense, than foreign oil.


By piling on R&D money, the oil companies could create new technologies, systems of working and even sensor tech that could have applications beyond the industry, possibly even as a way to drill to bury carbon dioxide in man-made gas “wells.” Again, paralleling NASA’s experience with the Columbia disaster, there’s no reason another deepwater oil accident won’t occur in the future, but at least the oil companies have better contingency plans in place. Yes, yes–we know all about the best laid plans.


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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)