The Trump administration pointed to key offshore drilling safety regulations adopted in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in its sweeping proposal to open up nearly all U.S. waters to oil and gas development, only to turn around in the months since and work to roll back those very safeguards.
The controversial drilling plan, released in January as part of President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, would make available for oil and gas leasing roughly 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, including large swaths of the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Interior Department, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, noted in the lengthy proposal that while offshore oil and gas production “will never be totally risk-free,” the agency “has made, and is continuing to make, substantial reforms to improve the safety and reduce the possible adverse environmental impacts” of those activities.
These changes, the Interior Department added, are “designed to reduce the risk of another loss of well control [as happened in 2010] in our oceans, and enhance our collective ability to respond to such incidents.”
The language is almost identical to what’s found in the current five-year oil and gas leasing program, which was finalized by the Obama administration in November 2016 and which the Trump administration is now working to replace.
Elizabeth Johnson Klein, the Interior Department’s associate deputy secretary under Obama, said the language first appeared in a draft of the current program, released in January 2015. She said it references the Well Control Rule and the Production Safety Systems Rule, two regulations that were under development back in early 2015 and are now on Trump’s chopping block. The language also points to broader reform efforts that occurred after the Gulf spill, including the division of the Minerals Management Service, the scandal-plagued agency faced with the conflicting tasks of issuing leases and policing offshore drilling operations, into three new agencies.
Klein called it “bold” for the Trump administration to highlight safety reforms that it was, and still is, in the process of unraveling.
The rollbacks target some of the most important provisions of the Well Control Rule and the Production Safety Systems Rule, said Klein, now deputy director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law.
Without those parts of the rules, she said, “I don’t know what they are now claiming is included as the ‘implemented reforms’ that reduce the risk of loss of well control.”
Days before the Trump administration unveiled its plans for a massive expansion of offshore drilling, it moved to weaken the Production Safety Systems Rule, a set of regulations pertaining to maintenance of offshore platforms. At the time, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement ― one of the agencies born out of the reorganization of the Minerals Management Service ― estimated that the move would save companies some $288 million over 10 years. The changes, finalized last month and slated to take effect on Dec. 27, loosen notification and certification rules for fossil fuel companies and toss out a requirement that offshore equipment be designed to withstand the most extreme weather and pressure conditions.
In its final rule, the safety bureau said provisions of the Obama-era regulation “created potentially unduly burdensome requirements for oil and natural gas production operators on the [Outer Continental Shelf], without meaningfully increasing safety of the workers or protection of the environment.”
In May, the Trump administration took aim at the Well Control Rule, a safety monitoring regulation meant to prevent the kind of incident that killed 11 workers and resulted in some 200 million gallons of crude oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. Finalized in 2016, six years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the rule requires additional inspection and maintenance of blowout preventers, a device designed to automatically seal a well and stop an uncontrolled release of oil and gas. The Interior Department’s proposed overhaul would loosen the inspection and oversight requirements for this equipment.
Like the rollback of the Production Safety Systems Rule, this effort is all about helping industry. In fact, many of the proposed changes to the Well Control Rule were requested by oil companies, as Eric Lipton of The New York Times reported in March.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement estimates these rollbacks would save oil companies just shy of $1 billion over a 10-year period. “Oil and natural gas operators raised concerns about certain regulatory provisions that impose undue burdens on their industry, but do not significantly enhance worker safety or environmental protection,” the proposed revision reads.
Bureau director Scott Angelle, who has close ties to the oil and gas industry, has defended the effort by noting that less than 18 percent of the Well Control Rule’s provisions would be impacted.
“I had asked you to use a scalpel to improve the rule, not a chainsaw to tear it apart,” he wrote in an April post to agency staff. “Your improvements achieved that goal.”
In comments submitted to the agency in August, 10 state attorneys general argued that weakening the rule at the same time as the Trump administration is looking to radically expand offshore drilling “is analogous to taping over the mirrors and unbuckling one’s seat belt just before getting on the highway.”
Klein said the two rule changes would allow the industry to “set their own standards and tell us if they’re OK.”
The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
In addition to easing safety rules, the Trump administration is reportedly considering recombining two agencies that were separated after the Gulf spill because of their conflicting roles: the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which handles offshore leases.
Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science at the University of Maryland who served on the bipartisan commission that investigated the causes of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, said easing the safety rules is both “premature” and “ill-considered.” He also expressed concern about merging the two agencies, but said the administration has in effect already done that by putting the safety bureau in the hands of Angelle, a big proponent of offshore fossil fuel development.
“That just seems to be conceptually, philosophically, the opposite of having this independent, separate, safety-focused operation,” Boesch said. “I think the message that sends within the agencies, to the employees of the agencies, the message it sends to the industry, is troubling.”
In April 2017, Trump signed an executive order aimed at opening up protected areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to oil and gas leasing. It instructed the Interior Department to review the current five-year program and write new rules for offshore oil and gas drilling under the guise of an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.” If approved, the leasing plan would go into effect from 2019 to 2024 and replace the current program, which is set to run through 2022 and was approved following an extensive, multiyear review.
The offshore drilling announcement drew immediate outrage from both Democrats and Republicans, who expressed concern about possible environmental damage and negative effects on tourism. Days after the proposal’s release, Zinke traveled to Florida and announced that on the recommendation of Gov. Rick Scott ― a staunch Trump supporter ― he was removing the state’s coastal waters from consideration. Zinke walked back Florida’s exemption after other states demanded that they receive the same pass. He has since hinted to officials from at least six states that the waters off their coasts will not be included in the final plan, Reuters reported this week.
Trump’s efforts to boost fossil fuel production come as scientists around the globe are painting an increasingly dire picture about the rapidly diminishing time left in which to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and prevent catastrophic global warming.