The European Union (EU) is backing away from more stringent rules for offshore oil and gas safety as a European Parliamentary (EP) energy committee gave a signal vote on Tuesday to change the legal basis of offshore rules from a regulation to a directive in Brussels.
The energy committee agreed to change the legal basis of the European Commission's draft proposals, unveiled last October, from a detailed, technical regulation binding all 27 EU countries to a more high-level directive that governments would have to transpose into national law. A directive will allow greater flexibility to countries to adapt the rules to existing systems.
"While a regulation has the advantage of its direct applicability, questions have been raised about the significant revocation and amendments of existing equivalent national legislation—such redrafting would divert scarce resources from the safety assessments and inspections on the field," said Belgian center-right MEP Ivo Belet, the EP's lead negotiator on the proposals, at the committee meeting.
Trade group Oil & Gas UK swiftly endorsed the vote in a statement Tuesday.
"The result, which comes after the environment committee vote for a directive, is very encouraging. . .A regulation would do exactly the opposite (of raising offshore safety standards) and weaken the UK's already world-class offshore health and safety regime," said Malcolm Webb, chief executive of Oil & Gas UK.
The committee agreed that oil and gas companies will have to submit major hazard reports and emergency response plans before getting a license to drill and that these licenses will only be granted if a company can prove it has enough cash to remedy any environmental damage caused.
It voted through requirements that drilling companies submit hazard reports to national authorities at the latest 24 weeks before the planned start of operations. These reports must detail drilling installations, potential major hazards and any special arrangements to protect workers and would have to be reviewed at least every five years.
Companies will have to provide internal emergency plans which give a full description of equipment and resources available, action to be taken in the event of an accident, and what arrangements are in place to limit risks and give the authorities early warning.
EU member states will also be required to prepare external emergency response plans covering all offshore drilling installations within their jurisdiction. The plans should outline the role of drilling companies, their liability for costs in the event of a disaster, as well as outlining the roles of relevant authorities and emergency response teams and how affected parties would be informed "rapidly" of any incidents.
MEPs also inserted an amendment in the draft law asking for a stronger role for the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) in preventing accidents. The draft law will replace the EU member states' current patchwork of laws and practices regarding offshore drilling activities.
The EC proposed the original regulation in response to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in April 2011.
"Europe has learned from the catastrophe with the Deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico and wants to limit the environmental and safety risks of offshore oil and gas exploration to a minimum. Especially today, when many member states with no or little experience in oil and gas operations, are looking into starting up drilling operations, a solid legislative framework is urgently needed," said Belet, who drafted the Energy Committee resolution and will now lead further negotiations with EU countries.
The committee vote is a signal of its intention but is not binding. The parliamentary energy committee will vote again on proceedings at a later date after EU countries have proposed changes.
Jane Morecroft and Kimberly Peterson