Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Deepwater Drilling is Back on the Menu. But Where’s the Public?

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May 2010: Shrimp boat deploys oil boom around slick in Gulf of Mexico

The Federal government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) held a public hearing last week in Houston on the environmental impact of its plan to sell more leases to drill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas. But almost nobody showed up to testify.

The audience numbered maybe six people. 

Matt Harlan, a Houston consultant on drilling regulations, was one of the few attending.

“Maybe the lack of people here says that it’s, you know, acceptable,” Harlan said of some of the new regulations imposed on drillers since the 2010 explosion and spill involving the Deepwater Horizon rig.

“There’s a whole lot fewer (people attending) than I anticipated,” said Connie Goers who works for a drilling company.

“Post Macondo (the area of the 2010 spill), everything was in turmoil from a regulatory standpoint. But the company I’m with, we primarily work just on the shelf (in shallow water) and it’s almost back to normal. Now deepwater, that’s a different story.”

In the past, the deepwater drilling industry complained loudly that new regulations were slowing down work in the Gulf and costing the U.S. jobs at a critical time for the economy.

The point of the hearing was to get input on BOEM’s “Environmental Impact Statement” which can be viewed below. Hearings in Mobile and New Orleans also had “light” turnouts according to BOEM’s media relations person, John Filostrat. But he said the agency is getting input via email and letters which he said have numbered in “the thousands.”

Courtesy Southern Environmental Law Center

Catherine Wannamaker is a lawyer for conservation groups suing BOEM

There was one response sent to BOEM in a different form: a  lawsuit filed last month on behalf of four national conservation groups.

“They’re now approving drilling in the Gulf on the premise that it has no potential for significant environmental impact and we just think that is not correct,” said Catherine Wannamaker with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta  which is representing the conservation groups.

According to the law suit, BOEM is using in its environmental impact statement a “risk model” that was formulated before the Deepwater Horizon spill. Therefore, the groups allege that containment and recovery measures required under government regulations would prove inadequate if another catastrophic spill were to occur.

They also fault the drilling industry’s $1 billion “rapid response” equipment that was required under the new regulations and is now standing by to be floated out to stop and contain a blowout.

“I think we’re relying on very untested and unproven methods that wouldn’t capture even a fraction of what could be a very large spill,” Wannamaker told StateImpact Texas.

The BOEM said it couldn’t respond since the legal action was on-going.

Someone else who didn’t attend the hearing but is very interested in how drilling is conducted in the Gulf is Jim Thomas. He owns J&R Seafood. In his little shop in a strip mall near the Texas Medical Center in Houston, he offers what he says is some of the best and freshest seafood from the Gulf: red snapper, flounder, and lots of shrimp.

“I trust him the most of any one I buy from,” said long-time customer Ingrid Keating.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Jim Thomas with a customer at J&R Seafood in Houston

But when the Deepwater Horizon raised doubts among customers back in the spring of 2010, Thomas said he had to put out a sign to tell people his seafood was “only from certified places” in waters off the Texas coast, not anywhere near the blowout off Louisiana.

“They have gotten some new regulations in the gas and oil industry. Hopefully, people will play by the rules and we won’t have any problems. But you know, we’ve got to have oil and gas right now,” said Thomas.



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