Trump administration rolls back environmental protections inspired by Deepwater Horizon catastrophe

Move part of president’s efforts to ease restrictions on fossil fuel companies and encourage domestic energy production

Coral Davenport
Saturday 29 September 2018 15:30
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Five years after BP oil spill

The Trump administration has completed its plan to roll back major offshore-drilling safety regulations that were put in place after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010 that killed 11 people and caused the worst oil spill in US history.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which was established after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and regulates offshore oil and gas drilling, has finalised a proposal for loosening the regulations as part of President Donald Trump’s efforts to ease restrictions on fossil fuel companies and encourage domestic energy production.

The rules “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,” says the new 176-page rule, which is scheduled in the coming days to be published in the Federal Register, before becoming the administration’s final policy.

“This rule supports the administration’s objective of facilitating energy dominance by encouraging increased domestic oil and gas production and reducing unnecessary burdens on stakeholders, while ensuring safety and environmental protection,” the new rule says.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Among the changes, the new rule removes a requirement for independent verification of safety measures and equipment used on offshore platforms.

It also removes a requirement that oil companies design their equipment to function in “most extreme” scenarios involving weather, high heat, strong winds or high pressure from within the undersea oil wells, which was a key factor in the deadly 2010 blowout.

And it removes a requirement that professional engineers certify the safety of the design of some pieces of offshore drilling equipment for new wells.

The new rule appears to reflect many of the requests made by the oil industry, including the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of oil companies. In its public comments on the proposal, the group praised the plan, saying it would further the goal of seeing that “exploration and development is promoted and not unnecessarily delayed or inhibited”.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, Ben Marter, declined to comment on the rule, which has not yet been made public, until the organisation has had time to review it.

Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, praised the rule changes.

“The revisions develop a rule that reduces unnecessary burdens placed on industry, while still maintaining world-class safety and environmental protections,” he said in a statement. “We have a rule that is not a safety rollback, but instead incorporates modern technological advances.”

The earlier rules, written in 2016 during the administration of President Barack Obama, tightened controls on “blowout preventers”, devices that are intended to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells, and called for rig operators to have third parties certify that the safety devices worked under extreme conditions. In the Deepwater Horizon spill, a supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer ended up failing after a section of drill pipe buckled.

Nearly one million coastal and offshore seabirds are estimated to have died in the spill, which released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the sea. The incident led to the largest environmental settlement in the nation’s history, with the oil giant BP agreeing to pay $18.7bn (£14.35bn) in civil penalties and damages to the federal government and affected states.

Environmentalists decried the final rule change.

“These rollbacks allow offshore oil companies to self-police and prioritise industry profits over safety,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director for offshore drilling at Oceana, an advocacy group. “This is a slap in the face to coastal communities and marine life that are most at risk from devastating oil spills.”

NYT

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