By Darryl Fears
The Washington Post
The Trump administration has weakened offshore drilling safeguards put in place after a 2010 explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 workers and triggered the largest ocean spill in U.S. history.
Administration officials said the revised Well Control Rule announced Thursday in Louisiana, not far from the site of the spill, reflects President Trump's stance on "facilitating energy dominance" by increasing domestic oil and gas production and reducing burdens on the fossil fuel industry.
"Today's final rule puts safety first, both public and environmental safety, in a common sense way," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. "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."
Officials at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a division of the Interior Department that promulgated the rule, said the changes also will save the offshore oil and gas industry nearly a billion dollars over 10 years.
Politicians and conservationists who oppose the rule change are worried about its potential cost to the environment. The Deepwater Horizon disaster poured 4 million barrels of oil — about 200 million gallons — into the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.
Around the time that the Obama administration finalized the rule in 2016 to guard against another catastrophic spill, BP announced that the accident had cost the company $61.6 billion, more than the value of Ford, Honda or General Motors.
The gulf fishing industry lost nearly $95 million in 2010 alone. According to the National Audubon Society, a million seabirds died.
More than 150 whales and dolphins were found dead during the response to the spill, while surviving dolphins suffered lung defects and hormone abnormalities, according to NOAA Fisheries.
When the spill was at its worst in May 2010, a month after it started, bluefin tuna were feeding and spawning as oil polluted their habitat. The wider effect on the animals is largely unknown.
The rule change comes at a time when the administration is considering expanding offshore drilling leases to 90 percent of the United States' outer continental shelf, including the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, an unprecedented proposal.
Before the proposal was announced by the Interior Department last year in January as part of the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, the agency suspended a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to determine whether oil rigs can operate more safely. The study is still on hold.
In preparation for its planned drilling expansion, the Interior Department is considering granting permits that would allow seven companies to conduct seismic surveys to map the Atlantic floor using earsplitting sounds that some scientists say harm whales.
Last week, the agency confirmed a decision to delay finalization of its five-year offshore oil exploration plan after a federal judge ruled that only Congress, not the White House, has the power to sweep aside Arctic and Atlantic drilling bans set by President Barack Obama.
Diane Hoskins, campaign director for the conservation group Oceana, said: "Gutting the far too few offshore drilling safeguards that were established in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is reckless and wrong. The Trump administration is putting industry cost savings ahead of safety just weeks after the anniversary of the worst oil spill in U.S. history."
Administration officials heeded the concerns of the industry, particularly the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on its behalf.
The institute said in a statement that it expects "opponents of natural gas and oil development anywhere to attack the updated rule."
"Offshore energy development is safer than ever," said Erik Milito, a vice president with the group. "Technological advances, as well as collaborative efforts by the industry and regulators, have helped to continuously advance safety systems and standards."
Industry representatives had complained that the Obama rules were overly burdensome and did not necessarily make offshore oil rigs and platforms safer. They said the rules did not recognize technological improvements since the BP spill.
In its rule proposal last May, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said it understood the concerns and identified areas where the rules could be "amended or removed to reduce significant burdens on oil and natural gas operators . . . while ensuring safety and environmental protection."
The new rules responded to those concerns by eliminating a requirement that safety and pollution prevention equipment be inspected by independent auditors certified by the bureau. A bipartisan presidential commission established after the BP disaster recommended such inspections.
Now oil companies can use "recommended practices" set by the oil industry for ensuring that safety equipment works, returning to a standard that existed before the gulf oil spill.
The industry's recommended practices "are simply that — they make recommendations but don't require anything," Nancy Leveson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as a senior adviser to the presidential commission, said when the rules were proposed.
"The documents are filled with 'should' instead of 'must,' " she said.
The revisions also include other changes the industry has sought. Safety-bureau regulators removed a key word from language describing the level of down-hole pressure the agency requires operators to maintain in a given well to avoid an accident. The word it removed is "safe."
Pressure tests, which failed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, no longer have to "show" that a well is in balance. Instead, they should "indicate" that.
A requirement that forced oil rig and platform operators to design and assure that equipment functions in extreme heat and weather such as storms that produce high winds was eliminated.
Extreme conditions played a role in the BP catastrophe and a lesser-known disaster that preceded it. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan so roiled the gulf that an underwater canyon collapsed and brought down an oil platform operated by Taylor Energy. Oil has spilled from the site ever since, the second worst in that body of water.
The National Ocean Industries Association applauded the bureau "for acknowledging that the 2016 Well Control Rule, while well intentioned, was flawed with technical problems that actually detracted from the goal of safe operations," said the group's president, Randall Luthi. "BSEE's final revisions, which leave the original rule largely intact, further manage risks and better protect workers and the environment, making drilling safer."
A conservation organization that successfully sued the administration over its plans to open the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to leasing despite earlier bans on drilling there vowed to fight the administration's weakened rules.
"These rollbacks are a handout to oil company [chief executives] at the cost of endangering the lives of their workers and heightening the risk for another environmental catastrophe off America's coastlines," said Chris Eaton, an attorney for Earthjustice. "We will use every tool we have to prevent these rollbacks."