Spill prompts call for safety institute

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Houston Chronicle

WASHINGTON — As oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, international drilling experts and engineers huddled inside a Houston command center to strategize about the best ways to contain the crude.

Now, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wants to replicate that collaboration by creating an Ocean Energy Safety Institute that would bring together government scientists, environmentalists, drilling experts and industry leaders focused on advancing offshore safety, spill response strategies and exploration techniques.

“The Deepwater Horizon tragedy highlighted the importance of raising the bar on offshore drilling safety, practices and technology,” Salazar said in a statement. “The institute would serve to coordinate and institutionalize the lessons and strategies learned from the oil spill so that the United States can stay at the forefront of drilling safety, containment and spill response.”

Salazar pitched the plan to more than a dozen oil and gas industry officials during a closed-door meeting in October. Energy companies were asked to submit ideas about the proposal by Nov. 30, and CEOs were asked to attend a follow-up meeting in mid-November.

Mostly supportive

Although the industry representatives were mostly supportive in the initial meeting with Salazar, some have complained that a new institute would duplicate collaborations already under way.

Carlton Carroll, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said the trade group is evaluating the proposal.

“Coordinating research and development to focus on prevention, response, cleanup and training is an important idea that deserves serious consideration. API and its member companies are committed to safety and have worked diligently to upgrade operations, equipment and safety standards,” Carroll said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Interior Department.”

Salazar envisions membership would be open to representatives from the Department of Energy and the Coast Guard as well as industry, academia and the scientific community. Although the proposed institute would be part of the Interior Department, it would aim to coordinate and prioritize research spending on offshore energy safety by various government agencies as well as other sources.

Emergency response

According to the Interior Department, the institute would allow members “to address technological needs and inherent risks associated with offshore drilling — and deep-water drilling in particular.”

The department said the institute also would aim to develop protocols for testing advanced technology and emergency response exercises.

jennifer.dlouhy@chron.com

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