The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest in the history of the petroleum industry, causing millions of barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. It was also a human tragedy with eleven lives lost. While the Trump administration is set to eliminate safety rules put in place after the Deepwater Horizon accident, researchers at the University of Houston are working on developing technologies that would prevent another such tragedy.
Rolling Back Safety Regulations to Open up Energy Production
The Obama administration set up regulations following the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon spill that were supposed to increase safety and protect against future offshore accidents. The rules increased the controls on the devices, called blowout preventers, which are used to halt explosions like the one that occurred underwater in the 2010 accident. They also included requirements that third parties certify safety devices on rigs and that they work in extreme situations and conditions.
The Trump administration is proposing to roll back those regulations, stating that doing so would minimize burdens that were unnecessarily hampering the oil industry. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a part of the Department of the Interior, claims that this move will save the industry $228 million in the next ten years. It also states that it will help to reassert energy dominance in the U.S. and increase the domestic production of oil and gas.
These moves follow last year’s executive order from President Trump that directed the Department of the Interior to reconsider many of the oil rig safety regulations put in place after the Deepwater Horizon accident. After issuing proposed rule changes, the Interior Department will give the public 30 days to comment on them. The proposed changes are backed by industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute.
Safety Technology Being Developed
While the rules may be changing that were designed to make offshore drilling safer, researchers are at work developing new technologies to make accidents like the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill less likely. The work is being done at the University of Houston, which received a $1.2 million grant from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to work on strategies to reduce offshore accidents.
The goals of the research are to be able to monitor processes on oil rigs and to predict when a catastrophic accident is likely to occur. The Deepwater Horizon accident occurred after gas built up uncontrollably and then was released in an explosion. The research team thinks it can develop a technology that would predict when this might happen so that interventions can prevent the worst case scenario. The research group hopes to have a working model that can predict gas buildup within the next three years. In addition to the University of Houston project, the NASEM has provided several more million dollars to other research institutions to develop other predictive and preventative safety technologies for offshore drilling.
While the administration rolls back safety rules to open up more offshore drilling and energy production in the U.S., concerns remain that another Deepwater Horizon tragedy could take place. Researchers hope to make that less likely with advances in predictive technology, some of which could be put in place in the next few years.