WASHINGTON (CN) – The head of an energy consulting firm told a presidential commission Wednesday that the oil industry was “moving very quickly” toward closing the oil spill response gap after a BP well gushed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
“The industry’s got religion,” PFC Energy Chief Executive Officer J. Robinson West said at a hearing of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in Washington. “They’re moving very quickly on this.”
He painted big oil as a “world-class industry” that employs the most globally advanced technology and said it deserved a federal agency that matched its superiority.
West also slammed regulators, calling the Minerals Management Service, which regulated the offshore drilling leases before the BP spill, a “sleepy organization.”
“The level of sophistication of the industry and the level of sophistication of (Mineral Management Service) were not comparable,” West said.
“I’m very pleased that the industry has got religion,” Commissioner Cherry Murray said with a hint of sarcasm. “How do you maintain it…without going into complacency?”
West pointed to the British system, which requires each oil and gas facility to demonstrate every five years that it can respond to emergencies.
“We are dealing with a state-of-the-art industry,” West said, “and we have to have state-of-the-art technology around it – and it costs money.” He suggested increasing the per barrel fee oil companies pay toward spill response to ensure that research was properly funded.
Shell Oil executive Joe Leimkuhler also warned against complacency in emergency response.
“The one thing I don’t want to hear is ‘Everything is fine,'” he said, adding, “Safety is an ever-green process.”
He said that when disaster strikes, it’s not normally while drilling a new well, because everyone is aware of the risks. “The disasters tend to happen during the routine,” he said.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco acknowledged that all parties “seriously underestimated” the risk and impact of a deepwater oil spill in the Gulf before the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 crew members and sparking a massive oil spill.
Lubchenco defended the agency’s decision to publicly release the oil budget calculator – the federal estimate for where the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled out of the broken wellhead ended up – on Aug. 4.
Besides the 800,000 million barrels pumped onto drillships on the Gulf’s surface, the government estimated that 25 percent of the oil evaporated, which the agency released to the public in a “Where did the oil go?” pie chart.
She said the estimates were made using data collected via plane, satellite and surface observers. “That was and remains our best estimate for what happened to the oil,” Lubchenco said.
Concerning a large, underwater plume that a group of Massachusetts scientists confirmed last week, Lubchenco said, “It’s really, really dilute. It’s not a lake of undersea oil sitting there.” She described it as “a cloud of highly dilute droplets” and said the droplets were microscopic bits smaller than a human hair. Even if you took a scoop of water directly from the plume, Lubchenco said, “you couldn’t see oil.”
She said the agency would make more information available to the public “as quickly as is responsible,” adding, “We don’t believe in just withholding it and waiting.”
World Wildlife Fund CEO Carter Roberts advocated that science play a stronger role in regulating the industry, and pleaded with officials to “bring the way we approach the oceans into the 21st century.”
He asked that drilling be stopped until federal agencies could force the oil industry to narrow the oil spill response gap.
Roberts said the impacts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill were still being felt.
“The fisheries have never been the same and the orca population is on its way to extinction,” he said. Roberts held up a sample of oiled material dug up recently from Prince William Sound, pointing out that the Arctic didn’t have the oil-eating microbes present in the Gulf of Mexico.
“There are going to be some places on earth where you simply don’t drill for oil,” Roberts said.