SELC, partners push back on attempts to weaken offshore drilling safety rules

As the Trump administration attempts to open the Atlantic to offshore drilling, conservation groups across the Southeast are pushing back on plans to simultaneously weaken the Well Control Rule, a critical offshore drilling safety measure put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

SELC filed comments earlier this week on behalf of more than 50 conservation groups, calling the revisions to the rule “reckless and dangerous.” The proposed rollbacks include gutting testing requirements for safety equipment, and would allow oil companies to choose how closely to monitor conditions at their underwater wells in real time—meaning imminent oil spills could go completely unnoticed.

It is clear that the Trump administration wants to walk back many positive steps less than a decade after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, while attempting to force offshore drilling on communities across the Southeast who have made it clear that drilling has no place off our shores,” said SELC Senior Attorney Sierra Weaver. “This failure to learn from the past is alarming, and making the same mistakes again puts our communities, shorelines, and coastal economies at even greater risk.”

Developed after six years of intensive study and industry consultation, the Well Control Rule is in part intended to ensure that blowout preventers—the device whose failure led to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy—are properly installed, maintained and inspected.

Blowout preventers are supposed to seal deep water wells in the event of an emergency, thus preventing a dangerous blowout from occurring. The Deepwater Horizon rig’s blowout preventer had been poorly maintained and failed catastrophically, resulting in the deaths of 11 oil rig workers and spilling 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the Well Control Rule was implemented, the number of offshore drilling incidents has dropped to record lows—down to zero in 2017. 

The new rule proposed by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)—the agency created in the wake of Deepwater Horizon to promote safety and protect the environment during offshore drilling operations — would erode these key protections by weakening maintenance and inspection standards for blowout preventers and other drilling equipment.

Members of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, appointed to investigate the causes of the disaster and make specific recommendations for offshore drilling safety, unanimously opposed this rulemaking, saying it would “aggravate the inherent risks of offshore operations, put workers in harm’s way, and imperil marine waters in which drilling occurs.”

The rulemaking would also let the offshore drilling industry dictate their own safety by more broadly relying on American Petroleum Institute standards in the rule—a practice specifically criticized by the commission due to API’s conflicting interests in industry profitability.

Rolling back the Well Control Rule, justified by BSEE as part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to reduce the regulatory burden on industry, flies in the face of BSEE’s mission to “promote safety, protect the environment, and conserve resources offshore through vigorous regulatory oversight and enforcement.”

BSEE will now turn to developing a draft of the final rule and SELC will be watching closely to see how they address the many problems with their current proposal.

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