GOM Operations Enter New Era

President Dave Rensink, speaking at the recent AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in Calgary. About 2,300 people registered. Watch the November EXPLORER for a full report.
President Dave Rensink, speaking at the recent AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in Calgary. About 2,300 people registered. Watch the November EXPLORER for a full report.

BP’s Macondo well has been plugged using top-kill techniques, and the oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico is dissipating faster than many had predicted. The oil flow has stopped and the well has been sealed. This is very good news.

You probably have heard all that you want to hear about this tragedy, but the collateral effects of the blowout are not over by any means.

BP has retrieved the blowout preventer stack (BOP) and, we can all hope, has determined why the last line of defense did not work.

The surface analysis of the BOP failure may prompt design changes in the BOP system, but it almost certainly will lead to new regulations on testing, maintenance and composition of the blowout preventer stacks in both deep and shallow water. We can expect to see any proposed changes for the Gulf of Mexico ultimately implemented worldwide.

I hope this catastrophe will be as close to a worst-case scenario as we will ever see.

As unfortunate as this has been, it has created a laboratory from which we will be able to answer two questions we were only able to speculate about previously:

  • What are the long-term effects of such a catastrophe?
  • How quickly will the ecosystem recover?

The answers to these questions will have great impact on future environmental assessment requirements for leasing.

The catastrophe also has raised questions regarding our ability to respond quickly and effectively to the pollution caused by a major oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. It probably is more correct to say that it has exposed our inability to effectively respond to a spill of this magnitude.

Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell should be commended on their plans to deploy a rapid response system to contain oil from any future blowout.

The moratorium on GOM deepwater drilling made sense immediately after the Macondo blowout while safety inspections were conducted. It makes less sense to carry it through to its November termination, since any safety deficiencies discovered have been corrected (see Washington Watch). The administration has stated the moratorium will not last a day longer than it deems necessary.

Even in November, there is no guarantee that the moratorium will not be extended; nor is there any certainty that new drilling permits will be issued in a reasonable time frame after the moratorium expires for drilling to resume quickly.

Based on the observations that very few deepwater rigs have left the Gulf of Mexico for international assignments and the changes in international rig counts have been minor, the GOM deepwater moratorium seems to have had a global impact. That likely is an over simplification. Most GOM operators and drilling companies have taken a wait and see attitude, and the decision to deploy their resources to international deepwater basins may not be made until later this year.

The issuance of few drilling permits for new locations on the GOM shelf since the blowout has essentially created a de facto drilling moratorium in the entire Gulf of Mexico. Operators report the only drilling permits currently being issued are those that involve sidetracking existing well bores.

This premise of a de facto moratorium is re-enforced by the cancellation of the western GOM lease sale originally scheduled for August.

In addition, there no longer is any support for leasing in the eastern GOM, off the Atlantic coast or off the California coast.

The spill is history and so is easy access to public lands – at least in the near term. Many of you would argue that we have never had “easy access” to public lands. That may be true, but whatever level of access existed in the past has gotten more difficult.

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President's Column - David G. Rensink

David G. Rensink, AAPG President (2010-11), is a consultant out of Houston. He retired from Apache Corp in 2009.

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