Greater drilling scrutiny urged as Australia reviews report on oil rig leak similar to Gulf’s

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Friday, June 18, 2010

More drill scrutiny urged as Australia gets report

CANBERRA, Australia — The investigative report on an oil rig leak off Australia last year that has striking similarities to the Gulf Coast spill likely won’t be public for weeks, but conservationists and experts say it’s clear already such drilling projects need far greater scrutiny.

The government received the final report Friday, but Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, who commissioned the inquiry, said he would seek legal advice to ensure that making the report public would not jeopardize any future court cases.

“I am bound to give consideration to advice from the Australian Government Solicitor to ensure that in the handling of this report, I do nothing to prejudice the conduct of further investigations” his statement said.

The West Atlas rig and Montara wellhead platform in the Timor Sea off northwest Australia began leaking last August at a relatively shallow 650 feet (200 meters) beneath the sea. More than 400 barrels of oil a day stained the coasts of Indonesia and East Timor before mud pumped through a relief well shut off the deepwater spigot 11 weeks later.

The much graver leak off the southern U.S. coast is pumping between 1.47 million and 2.52 million gallons a day into the Gulf of Mexico. The leak that started in April occurred much deeper at 5,000 feet (1,520 meters).

Halliburton, a Texas-based global oil field services provider, was the contractor that provided cement seals for both BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico and for the West Atlas rig in Timor Sea operated by PTTEP Australasia, a unit of Thailand’s PTT Exploration & Production Plc.

Greg Bourne, a former senior BP executive who is now the chief executive of the conservation group WWF-Australia, said the Australian investigative report should be released by early next week so that the industry could learn from the mistakes.

“Absent that knowledge and those learnings being made available, should an accident occur, that would be a travesty of justice,” Bourne said.

He expected investigations of both disasters would reveal design faults and cementing mistakes as well as procedural and regulatory failures.

“There are standards of good oil field practice and what we can begin to surmise is that they weren’t adhered to either in Australia or the Gulf of Mexico,” Bourne said.

But he said there were no lessons to be learned on how to plug the Gulf of Mexico flow, because the circumstances and technologies were too different.

Commissioner David Borthwick examined the adequacy of the response to the West Atlas leak and the effectiveness of the regulatory regime in preventing such disasters in the future.

Two Halliburton cementers David Doeg and Peter Geste testified during the hearing.

But the inquiry primarily focused on the role of PTTEP.

Elmer Danenberger, a retired U.S. regulator of the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico who recently gave evidence at congressional hearings into the ongoing Deepwater Horizon disaster, wrote in a submission to the Australian inquiry that the West Atlas blowout “appears to have been entirely preventable if internationally accepted practices were followed.”

Danenberger was not called to testify.

Tina Hunter, an expert on energy law at Australia’s Bond University who followed the Australian hearing, said Halliburton should be held responsible for incorrectly signing off on the West Atlas well shoe as being cemented properly.

“Both cases have similarities in that we have these oil spills that occur and then there doesn’t seem to be any contingency planning to stop the spill at its source,” Hunter said.

Halliburton official Tommy Roth told a Louisiana state Senate hearing on Thursday that a test needed to determine whether the Deepwater Horizon well had been properly sealed with cement was not done on the day it exploded.

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