5 years after BP spill: A look at what's changed in offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico

Energy Associated Press

As oil gushed from BP's ruptured well five years ago and public outrage built by the day, the Obama administration issued a six-month moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

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When the well was finally capped after nearly three months, political and industry pressure mounted on the White House to lift the ban, which it did about a month earlier than planned.

Since then, oil and gas drilling Gulf has bounced back strongly and the number of deep-water drilling rigs has actually increased from 35 to about 48. Drillers are pushing into even deeper water and greater depths below the sea floor to reach reservoirs considered riskier than the Macondo field, the source of the nation's worst offshore spill.

Elsewhere, the Obama administration has pushed to open up offshore waters in Alaska and along the Atlantic coast to drilling. In January, the Interior Department unveiled a plan to open up drilling next year in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas on the Arctic coast of Alaska and off the coast between Maryland and Florida.

Here's a look at what else has changed and what hasn't in the world of offshore drilling in the five years since BP's April 20, 2010, Macondo catastrophe:

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INDUSTRY OVERSIGHT

The Minerals Management Service, the agency overseeing drilling when the BP disaster occurred, is now defunct. It was widely considered ineffective as a regulator and incapable of keeping up with changes in a high-tech industry, and the Obama administration broke it up into three entities.

Now exploration and environmental planning are handled by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, drilling safety and inspections by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the collection of offshore royalties by the Office of Natural Resources Revenue.

The number of offshore inspectors working the Gulf has increased to about 92, nearly twice as many as before the BP spill, according to the enforcement bureau. Federal inspectors do more rigorous inspections of blowout preventers, the devices that are meant to shut off an out-of-control well.

Oil and gas companies are now required to complete extensive safety audits in which drillers must assess vulnerabilities and risks.

Other problems in this area persist. Among other issues, the spill exposed the government's dependency on the industry for the expertise and equipment needed to cope with a broken underwater well. Regulators acknowledge they still depend on the industry and find it hard to keep up with innovations.

Government agencies have long had trouble retaining engineers and inspectors, who can make much better salaries in the astronomically profitable energy sector. The Government Accountability Office noted in February that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement struggles to keep enough highly trained personnel.

Watchdogs say the regulatory changes have been slow and largely incremental.

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SAFETY AND PREVENTION

After the BP blowout, regulators came under fire for approving drilling plans that included dead people and response plans for animals that don't exist in the Gulf, such as the walrus. Since then, exploration and drilling plans are vetted more carefully and must be approved by independent engineers.

Still, many aspects of drilling plans remain largely secret, shielded by proprietary interests.

Regulators also increased drilling standards for how to drill wells — for example, requiring new testing for cement and extra safety barriers — following the spill. But critics point out that key recommendations made by independent panels were not carried out and that Congress failed to enact new legislation to strengthen the safety of offshore drilling.

Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced new proposals requiring operators to install blowout preventers that would have more backup measures. The blowout preventer is a massive piece of equipment meant to shut in an out-of-control well, the piece that failed in the Macondo disaster.

Those rules won't take effect for at least another five years, however.

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SPILL RESPONSE

When BP's well began spewing oil, the company and its industry partners found themselves unprepared for a spill of such size. Supplies of oil-stopping boom soon were used up. Idled fishing boats were converted to skimmers on the fly. A series of attempts by BP to contain the spill at the source failed; BP and the Coast Guard wound up soliciting ideas from the public and experts before a giant containment stack finally capped the well.

Afterward, oil companies set up the Marine Well Containment Co. and Helix Well Containment Group to develop better technology to contain spills. The two groups say they have systems for placing stacks over an out-of-control well and capturing huge amounts of oil and gas escaping from a blowout — up to 130,000 barrels of oil a day and 220 million cubic feet of gas in 10,000 feet of water, twice the depth of the Macondo well.

But the containment systems have not been tested during an actual blowout and in some cases — for instance, a total blowout, or even one that fractures the seafloor — they would not be able to capture all the leaking oil.

Meanwhile, other industry groups that specialize in cleanup say they have vastly increased their capacity to respond. For example, Clean Gulf Associates Inc. says it has increased its absorbent boom from 10,000 feet to 55,000 feet and added several large skimmers to its fleet.

But doubts persist over whether boom does much good in turbulent offshore conditions.

Cleanup groups have also developed new devices for spraying dispersants on a spill, both underwater and from the air. Environmentalists remain wary about the toxic nature of dispersants, chemicals that break oil into tiny parts, and critics say regulators have failed to push the industry to develop non-toxic alternatives.