The recent series of accidents on offshore oil and gas platforms (Australia, Montara, 21st August 2009; United States, Deepwater Horizon, 20th April 2010; China, Penglai 19-3, 4th June 2011; Great Britain, Elgin, 29th March 2012; Kulluk, United States, 31 December 2012) have raised public awareness on the extent to which offshore oil and gas exploitation is moving into increasingly deep waters and extreme environments. Underwater drilling really took off in the 1970s, as the dual effect of a political factor—the desire of consumer countries to lessen their dependence on the Gulf States by developing their own energy sources—and of technological developments making it possible to drill ever further from coastlines and at ever greater depths. Whereas just after the Second World War industries were only drilling in around 10 metres of water, it is now increasingly common for rigs to drill at a depth of over 2 kilometres. As of today, almost a third of the oil and a quarter of the natural gas consumed in the world come from underwater areas, and these rates are expected to increase in the near future: activities remain indeed high in traditional offshore regions while operators are moving into new areas, such as the eastern Mediterranean and East Africa.
Because accidents on offshore oil and gas platforms may have transboundary impacts, they invite the international community to question the suitability of the current framework for the regulation of offshore drilling activities. Indeed, although the 1982 United Nations Convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) imposes a general obligation to protect the marine environment, no international convention specifically sets international standards determining the conditions under which States should issue drilling permits. Moreover, there is currently no international agreement providing specific rules on liability and compensation when an accident occurs. On the basis of this double regulatory gap, discussions have recently been reopened at the international and regional levels on the opportunity and feasibility to develop and/or strengthen rules regulating offshore drilling, both on safety and liability and compensation issues.
In this context, IDDRI launched in 2012 the project "Towards an international regulation of offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation", with the support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, as well as the MAVA and FIBA Foundations. The general objective of the project is to identify options to strengthen the international regulation of offshore drilling activities and hence to feed the discussions that currently take place in international and regional arenas.