British Lawmakers: No Need To Ban Offshore Drilling

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A Drill in the Gulf of Mexico

A Drill in the Gulf of Mexico

A report by a British parliamentary committee looking into the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster warned on Tuesday that Britain is not ready to handle a spill of the kind suffered by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, but found that a moratorium on drilling around British coasts was unnecessary because British safety standards are “superior to those under which Deepwater Horizon operated.”

The Energy and Climate Change committee issued the report, which comes on the same day as an excerpt of an upcoming U.S. national commission report into the spill, after hearing months of testimony on the U.S. spill from regulators and oil executives, including former BP CEO Tony Hayward. Environmental groups in the UK had hoped the committee would recommend a ban on drilling, but the committee  decided that a moratorium would “cause drilling rigs and expertise to migrate to other parts of the globe” while also undermining the UK’s energy security. The report said that British safety rules were a “gold standard” because of changes made to regulation following the 1988 North Sea Piper Alpha rig explosion that killed 167 workers off the coast of Scotland.

(See photos of the Deepwater Horizon relief well)

But the report also raised several concerns about oil companies’ offshore activities. It criticized the companies for lacking board members with environmental experience, and cast doubt on claims that the oil industry knows how to shut off a leaking well in deep water–particularly in the harsh environment of the North Sea and North Atlantic. “There are serious doubts about the ability of oil spill response equipment to function in the harsh environment of the open Atlantic,” the report said.

The report also pointed out that because the North Sea is a mature province with increasingly small finds, smaller companies (rather than large international oil companies) are coming to dominate UK production. But these companies may find it hard to meet the costs of a big spill, the report said, and suggested that all companies should be required to hold insurance. It also said that the current limit on accident liability—$250 million per incident—should be raised.

Responding to the report, Greenpeace Executive Director John Sauven called for a judicial review of offshore drilling in the UK. He said: “This report lists all the reasons why a ban on deep sea drilling makes sense and then ignores its own findings. The oil companies have no idea how they would deal with a major spill off the coast of the UK but apparently we’re supposed to trust them until they come up with an adequate plan.”

(See TIME’S top ten environmental stories of 2010.)

In the U.S., excerpts from a presidential commission report into the Gulf disaster found that decisions to save time and money contributed to the spill. The full text of the report will be published on Jan. 11. Charles Hendry, the British energy minister, said that the U.K. government would carry out another review of the British offshore safety regime once US investigations had been concluded.