In December 2017, the Trump administration rolled out a proposal to gut a key offshore drilling safety regulation, adopted in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, that the Trump administration had cited to justify its plans to open nearly all U.S. waters to oil and gas development.
Newly released emails show that months earlier, the American Petroleum Institute and six other oil industry groups told top officials at the Department of the Interior that they “did not see the need” for the Obama-era Well Control Rule to include oversight from the department’s main offshore energy enforcement arm, and asked regulators to eliminate whole sections of the regulation, which the Obama administration had finalized in 2016 to prevent the next Deepwater Horizon disaster.
In response to the request, Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason thanked the industry groups for their feedback. And Daniel Jorjani ― a Trump appointee later promoted to serve as the agency’s top lawyer ― emailed back just one word: “Agreed.”
The oil industry’s role in shaping the Trump administration’s rulemaking was never in doubt. In its proposed revision, Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement wrote that “oil and natural gas operators raised concerns about certain regulatory provisions that impose undue burdens on their industry” and estimated that the rollback would save industry just shy of $1 billion over a 10-year period.
But the May 17, 2017 email, made public through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows for the first time the extent of industry’s influence over the fine-print details of regulations that are supposed to police it.
“We appreciate the actions of this Administration to eliminate unnecessary burden and to restore certainty and predictability into the offshore permitting and regulatory regimes,” Holly Hopkins, a senior policy adviser at API, wrote in the email.
Hopkins works for the nation’s most powerful oil and gas lobby, but also represented six other large industry groups in her letter: the Independent Association of Drilling Contractors, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the National Ocean Industries Association, the Offshore Operators Committee, the Petroleum Equipment & Services Association, and the U.S. Oil and Gas Association. The National Ocean Industries Association, or NOIA, and the U.S. Oil and Gas Association are former clients of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a longtime former lobbyist for oil, mining and agricultural interests.
“Safety is a core value for the oil and natural gas industry,” Hopkins wrote. “We are committed to safe operations and support effective regulations in the area of blowout preventer systems and well control.”
But experts say the changes to the Obama-era rule did the exact opposite, leaving the country’s offshore oil rigs as vulnerable to disaster as they were in April 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded while the fossil fuel giant was drilling an exploratory well off the coast of Louisiana, releasing more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
“What will come of this is we’ll have less safety on offshore oil rigs, which we know could end up putting workers’ lives at risk,” said Jacob Carter, a scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. “This is a really good case of the administration ignoring science on behalf of industry.”
API spokesperson Reid Porter said the suggestions in Hopkins’ email were consistent with the trade groups’ publicly-filed comments.
“This was a process in response to Secretarial Order 3350 that several organizations and experts in the field participated in,” he wrote in an email. “The updated rule reinforced industry actions and a regulatory framework that support safe operations.”
A spokesperson for the Interior Department said the agency carefully reviewed more than 118,000 comments submitted during a public comment period and that the revised rule “incorporated commonsense changes that were based on the best available science, best practices and technological innovations.”
This is a really good case of the administration ignoring science on behalf of industry. Jacob Carter, a scientist at the Center for Science and Democracy
The Well Control Rule required additional inspection and maintenance of blowout preventers, devices designed to automatically seal a well and stop an uncontrolled release of oil and gas. As HuffPost previously reported, Trump’s Interior Department pointed to the rule and other Obama-era reforms in its controversial plan to open vast areas of the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans to oil production, writing that the agency has made “substantial reforms to improve the safety and reduce the possible adverse environmental impacts.”
It then turned around and rolled back those very safeguards.
The Trump administration’s overhaul of the Well Control Rule, finalized in May 2019, includes many of the industry groups’ suggested changes, including loosening a provision for real-time monitoring of wells and lifting a requirement that third-party rig inspectors be certified by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
“Rulemaking on [real-time monitoring] is premature, we suggest deleting those requirements,” Hopkins wrote in her 2017 email. “Certification,” she added, “can be done by third party organizations; they do not need to be approved by BSEE.”
API’s point person on this particular issue was Katharine MacGregor, then Interior’s acting assistant secretary for lands and minerals management, who has since taken over as the agency’s deputy secretary. During her tenure at the Interior Department, MacGregor has had at least 62 meetings with industry groups pushing for increased offshore drilling access, including API and NOIA, according to a 2019 analysis by industry watchdog group Documented. On its website, NOIA writes that MacGregor “orchestrated myriad congressional hearings and drafted key legislation aimed at expanding access both onshore and offshore” while working as a Republican staffer on the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
Elizabeth Johnson Klein, the Interior Department’s associate deputy secretary under former President Barack Obama, said the oil and gas sector’s criticisms of the Well Control Rule are nothing new and were well-known to Obama’s Interior Department.
“We just opted to move forward on the side of responsible and safe development, understanding in particular the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and the numerous recommendations made in the wake of that tragedy to improve oversight of offshore oil and gas activities,” Klein said in an email.
Read the 2017 emails below.