Trump erases offshore drilling rules enacted after BP oil spill
The Trump administration on Thursday dismantled safety rules for offshore drilling put in place by the Obama administration after the disastrous BP oil spill fouled the Gulf of Mexico nearly a decade ago.
The rollbacks are a major victory for the oil and gas industry that has criticized the Obama rules as too onerous and costly to comply with, but which supporters say have helped prevent a repeat of the accident that killed 11 workers and spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil in 2010.
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“Incorporating the best available science, best practices and technological innovations of the past decade, the rule eliminates unnecessary regulatory burdens while maintaining safety and environmental protection offshore,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement.
The final version of the changes to Well Control Rules come shortly after the Interior Department said it was pushing back plans to open up vast new areas of coastline for oil and gas exploration in federal waters, a move that would delay the controversial expansion until after the 2020 election.
That new rules are designed to ease drilling in places like the Gulf of Mexico, where oil production reached a record 1.9 million barrels a day at the end of last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The new rule, which takes effect in 60 days from Friday, reduces the frequency of tests to key equipment such as blowout preventers, which sit at the wellhead at the ocean floor and are the last-ditch defense against massive gushers. It also allows drillers to use third-party companies instead of government inspectors to check equipment and gives them more time between inspections, among other things.
The energy industry welcomed the new rule, and the National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi said in statement the Obama rule “while well intentioned, was flawed with technical problems that actually detracted from the goal of safe operations.”
The revisions, he said, “leave the original rule largely intact, further manage risks and better protect workers and the environment, making drilling safer.”
Environmentalists say the rollback puts both the Gulf waters and workers’ safety in jeopardy.
“The well control rule was one of the most important actions we took, as a nation, in response to the BP-style disaster at sea,” Earthjustice, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Society said in a joint statement. “If the Trump administration’s final rule weakens these protections, as its proposed changes did, it will put our workers, waters and wildlife at needless risk. That’s irresponsible, reckless and wrong.”
The rollback is also opposed by Rep. Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican from a coastal district, who last year joined in a bipartisan letter with 20 other members of the state’s congressional delegation calling on then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reverse course.
Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement acknowledged in the final rule that “a large majority of the approximately 118,000 comments that BSEE received voiced significant concerns about the proposed changes.”
But it defended the changes as a way to get rid of burdensome rules that it contends wouldn’t have made rigs any safer, even though it said at times that the changes were driven by industry’s worries about costs. In one example, BSEE said it was allowing companies to test blowout preventers less often because of industry complaints about the cost of such tests.
“In recent years, the industry has raised concerns related to the benefits of pressure and function testing of subsea [blowout preventers] when compared to the costs and potential operational issues associated with such testing, including wear and tear,” the agency said in the rule.
Green groups are studying the rules and looking for flaws they can challenge with lawsuits, said Chris Eaton, an attorney for Earthjustice. He said that as with other Trump administration regulatory rollbacks that courts have blocked, the new Well Control Rule fails to show why loosening the Obama safeguards was necessary.
“You’ve got this prior rule that was promulgated on factual findings — the original rule would reduce loss of control, make things safer, and it cited tons of studies,” Eaton said. “Then you have this rollback that just says we’ll get rid of that and be just as safe, but doesn’t look at the factual findings that went before that. It’s a change of position that doesn’t actually address the evidence.”
Critics are also slamming Interior for a lack of transparency: The new rules reference standards written by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association, that could only be read on the group’s website. To download or print the standards, members of the public must register with the trade association on its website and pay a fee.
“To add insult to injury, in order to know what the final rule entails, the public is again being forced to be beholden to the regulated industry,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the group Project On Government Oversight. “If this isn’t the perfect example of a government agency being captured by the industry it regulates, I don’t know what is.”
An API spokesperson denied the allegation, and said the group had met accessibility requirements set by the Office of Management and Budget — and that it goes beyond those rules by keeping the standards accessible beyond the public comment period.