Deep-sea drilling in europe: eu waives oil moratorium

After the USA, Europe also gives in: Deep-sea drilling remains possible under pressure from the UK. Liability and safety requirements are to be tightened.

Didn’t help: Protest by Greenpeace activists against deep-sea drilling in Brussels. Photo: dpa

Following British pressure, the EU Commission has weakened its list of requirements for safety measures for future oil drilling in the deep sea. In an original draft circulated in Brussels last week, the agency had called for a moratorium on new drilling permits until all technical lessons had been learned from the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In the version that Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger then presented Wednesday, member states are simply asked to consider whether a "suspension of permits" might be a reasonable measure.

Even this watered-down version is merely a test balloon for the mood in the European Parliament and among the member states. Concrete legislative proposals on licensing procedures, safety standards, liability and occupational health and safety are to follow early next year. On Tuesday, the U.S. government had also lifted its July licensing moratorium, which was originally supposed to last until November. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar justified this with new, stricter safety requirements and better monitoring of offshore production.

In the EU, permits will in future only be issued if the company has drawn up an emergency plan and is insured against possible environmental damage or has built up reserves. Until now, operators have only been liable for protected fish species in waters up to 12 nautical miles off the coast. In the future, all damage in a zone up to 200 nautical miles must be compensated.

The safety equipment, in particular the safety valves of the drilling rigs, must comply with the latest technical standards. For their part, the national authorities carrying out the inspections are to be evaluated by independent experts. In Great Britain in particular, Oettinger said, the closeness between the operating companies and the technical inspectors in the authorities has been too great up to now. If a moratorium is not politically enforceable, at least monitoring must be improved, he said.

Of the nearly 900 offshore oil production facilities in the EU, 486 are in the UK, 181 in the Netherlands, 61 in Denmark and 123 in Italy. None of them reaches the water depth that made the Gulf of Mexico rescue work so difficult. In Norway, however, there are wells in more than 1,000 meters of water. The UK plans to drill to a depth of 1,600 meters west of the Shetland Islands and up to 1,110 meters near the Faroe Islands. Romania has issued a drilling permit for the Black Sea at a water depth of 1,000 meters.

So far, Europe’s Mediterranean neighbors are not planning any production wells at similar depths. But drilling is already underway in Libyan territorial waters at a depth of 1,500 meters, and production wells are planned at 2,000 meters. In Egypt, drilling to a depth of 2,700 meters is planned.

Such installations are technically particularly risky, as divers can only work at depths of up to 250 meters. At a depth of 1,000 meters, the high pressure also makes remote-controlled rescue work by robots difficult.

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