Energy & Environment

Trump officials seek to ease landmark offshore drilling safety rules

The Trump administration is proposing to roll back parts of a landmark offshore drilling safety regulation that was written in response to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The rule, dubbed the Well Control Rule, was put into place in 2016. Its standards focus on blowout preventer systems, the emergency systems that offshore oil and natural gas drillers have on hand for when something goes wrong with drilling and operators lose control of the well. That happened in the BP spill, causing an explosion that killed 11 workers and an 87-day uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.


The announcement came Friday, a week after the eighth anniversary of the explosion.

The Well Control Rule was the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s response to the disaster.

The oil industry and its allies, including most congressional Republicans, have long complained that parts of the rule were unnecessarily burdensome and sought to have them overturned. Many of those provisions would be undone with the Trump proposal.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) argues that it is making changes that ease burdens on drillers — saving them $946 million over 10 years — without at all compromising safety.

“We believe that by focusing on safety without lessening safety or environmental safeguards, we have produced the kind of public policy that is good for America, is good for energy security and is good for economic security,” Scott Angelle, BSEE’s director, told reporters Friday.

Angelle said that the changed rule would still align completely with what outside organizations recommended to the government following the BP disaster.

“We can confidently say that not a single one of the changes that we made have ignored or contradicted a single recommendation that any one of these 14 external organizations made through those 26 reports,” Angelle said, adding that 84 percent of the provisions in the 2016 rule are going untouched.

“In many cases, these engineers and our team have gone in with a scalpel and been very precise in what provisions they’ve chosen and proposed to revise,” said Kate MacGregor, principal deputy assistant secretary of Interior for land and minerals.

Among the changes proposed by the Trump administration: Organizations that certify blowout preventer equipment would not have to have BSEE verification; requirements would be updated for remotely operated underwater vehicles that drillers could use to help prevent blowouts; standards for real-time monitoring of well conditions would be eased; and drillers wouldn’t have to temporarily shut their wells when certain boats travel nearby.

Environmentalists and Democrats slammed the proposal, saying it rejects the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“This administration wants to turn a blind eye to history just to help their friends in the oil industry,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is running for reelection this year.

“We can’t let that happen. These rules were put in place to prevent another massive oil spill off our coasts. We can’t allow this new administration to take us backwards in time and, once again, expose Florida’s beautiful beaches and tourism-based economy to such an unnecessary risk,” he said.

“The Trump administration’s commitment to unlearning the lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster knows no bounds,” said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Rolling back these safety regulations only threatens the safety of workers and makes it even more likely that we’ll see another disaster of this scale decimate our coasts.”

But the oil industry welcomed the Trump administration’s plan, saying it would ease burdens without compromising safety.

“BSEE’s decision to revise its technically flawed Well Control Rule will help to strengthen safer offshore operations,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute.

“These revisions will move us forward on safety, help the government better regulate risks and better protect workers and the environment.”

“As written, the existing rule is flawed with technical deficiencies and ambiguities that detract from safe operations,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Offshore Industries Association. “BSEE’s proposed revisions to the WCR will enhance safety and decrease risk offshore.”

BSEE plans to send the proposal next week for publication in the Federal Register, which would kick off a 60-day public comment period, after which the agency could make it final.

Once it is final, opponents of the changes could sue the agency to get them reversed.

Updated at 2:58 p.m.

Tags Bill Nelson Deepwater Horizon Interior Department Offshore drilling
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