Counting Down to the Next Deepwater Horizon

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout resulted in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, with 11 workers killed in the initial explosion. The spill itself lasted over a period of 87 days, pouring 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 1,300 miles of shoreline in five different states were contaminated, killing off wildlife and marsh vegetation, causing land erosion and deeply affecting the tourism and fishing industries, costing local economies millions upon millions of dollars.

While BP claimed that, “the current economic data do not suggest that individual and business claimants face material risk of future loss caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” a report issued in July 2011 indicated that the full impact of the spill may not be fully realized for years to come. To this day, oil continues to be found on the beaches that were affected, and in June 2018 a group of American researchers published a report claiming oil that had settled on the Gulf floor around the spill site had changed the fundamental building blocks of life.

In Deepwater’s aftermath, the Obama administration enacted new rules, as well as tightened and updated longstanding safety standards. Among the new regulations was the Well Control Rule, which places stricter guidelines on well design and related operating procedures. The WCR took years to put together, and was only finalized in April 2016, less than a year before the start of the Trump administration. Now, thanks to a report in POLITICO, we’ve discovered that in less than two years the Trump administration has granted nearly 1,700 waivers to offshore oil drillers, effectively allowing them to ignore the new guidelines.

Waivers can be requested for a variety of different reasons. However, the POLITICO report says the majority of these have been used to bypass tighter restrictions on blowout preventers – the same device that failed during the Deepwater blowout. Had it been working properly, it could have prevented the spill.

Offshore drilling is a highly technical field and a lot of care has gone into crafting these regulations. However, they aren’t practical in every situation and under the WCR waivers are allowed under some instances. The problem comes with the fact that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which was formed in 2011 in response to the Deepwater spill, does not track requests for these waivers. Nor does it make them public. Companies such as BP and Hess, who have applied for drilling permits, have refused to say whether they also applied for waivers.

With no transparency into the BSEE’s review process, the public has no way of knowing the agency’s criteria for granting these waivers. As a matter of fact, it has no way of knowing if it has any criteria at all. It is not outside the realm of possibility that drillers are claiming that there are compelling reasons for each waiver request, and the BSSE is simply granting the requests on their word alone. There’s also a concern that, rather than trying to fix any legitimate issues under the Well Control Rule, drillers simply request a waiver anytime a problem pops up.

All of this is happening as the Trump administration plans to enact permanent changes to the Well Control Rule and other regulations enacted in response to the Deepwater blowout. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are doing all of this with input from industry insiders. The POLITICO report quotes Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, as saying, “It is important that [the WCR] is revised based upon new insights and developments in the offshore exploration and development field to enhance the regulatory framework to ensure updated, modern, and safe technologies, best practices, and operations,” which is a little like saying, “We should revise this because it should be revised.”

Also quoted is Scott Angelle, current director of the BSEE and formerly of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, who said, “Nothing in our proposed rule will alter any elements of other rules promulgated since the Deepwater Horizon event, including the drilling safety rule and the safety and environmental management system rules. Our process was laser focused, seeking to rid and eliminate only burdensome regulations while ensuring safe and environmentally friendly development.”

Those are nice, hopefully sincere, words. However, many of the planned revisions will allow drillers to reduce the number of safety tests their blowout preventers are required to undergo, as well as remove requirements that monitoring data be turned over to regulators. Oil companies refer to these rules as burdensome. Will rolling them back make their jobs easier? Undoubtedly. Will it also increase the risk of another Deepwater Horizon-type incident? Absolutely.

Hindsight is 20/20. And if some of the rules that are about to be rolled back were in effect in the years leading up to 2010, Deepwater Horizon may have continued operating in anonymity to this day. Oil companies may consider these WCR regulations to be burdensome. You know what else is burdensome? Millions in lost tourism dollars because beaches are covered in oil and the continued ecological stress along the Gulf region. And the human burden put on the families who lost loved ones on April 20, 2010. Why would we take the chance of watching the same thing happen all over again?

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