As oil and natural gas exploration and development in Cook Inlet grows, some organizations are looking at growing the safeguards of those operations.
The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state’s quasi-judiciary regulatory agency that oversees drilling and other oilfield practices, recently issued a call for comments on the state’s oil contingency plans. In response, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council asked the group to consider requiring blowout contingency plans to be reviewed on a regular basis.
Betty Schorr from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation said a blowout contingency plan would outline what an operator needed to do to prevent a blowout, and how to respond if such an event occurred.
A blowout is an uncontrolled spill of oil or natural gas from a well when certain systems fail.
Schorr said the plans essentially lay out the types of controls — primary, secondary, procedural, mechanical; and specify how to accomplish those controls, like requiring certain sheers to cut the pipe and stop a blowout, Schorr said.
“It explains those types of controls,” Schorr said.
CIRCAC’s comments were made as part of what AOGCC Commissioner John Norman described as a scoping process. Through public hearings and written comments, the commission sought suggestions from the public. Now all the possible changes must undergo a lengthy consideration process that includes internal AOGCC review and public review.
Right now, blowout plans have to be on file, but no one checks the plan to make sure that is feasible.
As a named reviewer of the Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plans required for development, CIRCAC’s Vinnie Catalano said his organization suggested that it would be a smart move for the AOGCC to review the plans.
CIRCAC Director of Public Outreach Jerry Rombach said that ultimately, CIRCAC would like to see the process changed so that approval of a blowout plan is required for an oil prevention and contingency plan to receive approval.
“We saw a disconnect between the two plans,” Rombach said. “This, if adopted, we hope would close that gap.”
State regulations do require that blowout preventers are tested regularly on exploratory and production wells.
CIRCAC has been interested in such a change for some time, Rombach said. His organization first brought it up to the AOGCC in testimony last March.
The change is meant to be preventive. Alaska hasn’t had a problem with blowouts recently, and CIRCAC doesn’t want one to occur.
“There’s new exploration going on, and it’s an important issue, obviously,” Catalano said.
Rombach said such a requirement might have helped in Outside situations, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Schorr said her department is largely focused on oil spill prevention and response of all sorts — from tankers to pipes. DEC doesn’t currently have the expertise to review blowout plans, but supports the AOGCC considering such a move, Schorr said.
Norman said the commission closed the record for the public to weigh in with suggested changes in January. Now, the commission is charged with going through the suggestions — including CIRCAC’s — and determining how to proceed with each one.
Eventually, the AOGCC will come up with draft changes to the current Alaska regulations, Norman said. Those will be published in late spring at the earliest.
The public will have an opportunity to comment on each possible change before the AOGCC makes a decision on whether or not to adopt it. Norman said the Alaska Administrative Procedures Act details the requirement for handling possible regulation changes. There’s a timeline for publishing them, and opportunity public review and comment. Then the AOGCC will talk about them once again before drafting the final changes.
Norman said it’s too early to say whether the AOGCC will opt to include CIRCAC’s suggestion in its draft changes.
In December, AOGCC Commissioner Cathy Foerster told the Alaska Journal of Commerce that the commission was considering such a requirement as part of a review of the state’s drilling safety rules.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.