Interior Department Loosens Offshore Oil Well Safety Rules

The Development Driller III, which drilled the relief well and pumped the cement to seal the Macondo well, the source of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill, is seen in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Sept. 18, 2010, the day the cementing was completed. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(CN) – The Trump administration finalized a rule Thursday that lifts key safety requirements for offshore oil wells, a move that critics fear could lead to another disaster like the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Announcing the rule change Thursday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said it would eliminate “unnecessary regulatory burdens” to promote responsible offshore oil drilling “while maintaining safety and environmental protection.”

Several environmental groups have already condemned the revisions as a step backward, which ignores lessons learned from the 2010 explosion that killed 11 workers and pumped more than 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating vast expanses of water and devastating seafood and tourism industries for years.

“The well control rule was one of the most important actions we took, as a nation, in response to the BP-style disaster at sea,” Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

Finalized in 2016, the Obama-era Well Control Rule set stringent requirements for blowout prevention, well-sealing and design, underwater containment and real-time monitoring.

Under the Trump administration rule finalized Thursday, offshore oil wells are no longer required to send real-time camera data from undersea monitors to government inspectors. The administration also changed the standard for blowout preventers, which are now required to “close” rather than “achieve an effective seal.” Additionally, the rule eliminates a requirement that federal regulators certify blowout preventer inspectors.

Deans said the Trump administration disregarded key findings of an independent commission, whose recommendations were incorporated into the Well Control Rule in 2016. One of those findings was that the government, rather than oil industry group American Petroleum Institute, should certify inspectors.

“That’s exactly what the independent commission cited as one of the reasons for this disaster: that the industry was policing itself,” Deans said.

David Hayes, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Interior in the Obama and Clinton administrations who now serves as executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law, characterized the rule change as discouraging for environmental protection advocates.

“As the first Obama administration official in the Gulf of Mexico the morning after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, I find it disheartening that the Trump administration is rolling back important offshore drilling safety requirements for the express purpose of saving some money for the oil and gas industry,” Hayes said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Others are pleased with the Trump administration’s decision.

The American Petroleum Institute hailed the rule change as providing more flexibility for offshore oil well operators to innovate and develop new technologies while also improving safety.

“The revision strengthens the rule and enhances a robust regulatory framework to ensure updated, modern, and safe technologies, best practices, and operations,” said Erik Milito, the institute’s vice president of upstream and industry operations, in a statement Thursday.

The new rule changes 68 of the 342 Well Control Rule provisions enacted in 2016. The Interior Department also added 33 new requirements, including new limits on the number of connection points to blowout preventers.

Another new provision aims to “improve the expected lifespan” of a critical blowout preventer part by requiring a new performance test that avoids “putting unnecessary wear and tear on the component,” according to the Interior Department.

Earthjustice, another environmental group critical of the rule change, said the revisions will override important safeguards aimed at providing “real-time oversight of risky drilling operations” and precautions that might stop an oil spill.

Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton suggested in a statement Thursday that legal challenges against the Trump administration’s rule change are already in the works.

“These rollbacks are a handout to oil company CEOs at the cost of endangering the lives of their workers and heightening the risk for another environmental catastrophe off America’s coastlines,” Eaton said. “We will use every tool we have to prevent these rollbacks.”

The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 caused 4.3 million barrels of oil to ooze into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. BP paid $20 billion to settle claims related to the spill in 2016.

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