Loosening of Offshore Drilling Safety Rules Prompts Lawsuit

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Fearing a rollback of offshore drilling rules will threaten worker safety and coastal waters, nine environmental groups sued the Trump administration Tuesday, claiming weaker standards could lead to another catastrophe like the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“These rollbacks are a step back to the pre-Deepwater Horizon days when the offshore oil industry largely policed itself to disastrous effect,” Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton said in a statement Tuesday.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Interior finalized a rule that repeals key provisions of the Well Control and Blowout Preventer Rule. Enacted in 2016 under the Obama administration, the Well Control Rule was designed to address deficiencies identified by four expert panels who studied factors contributing to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The April 2010 explosion killed 11 people and gushed 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, creating the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

A month before that blast occurred, the U.S. Inspector General published a report detailing a “culture of corruption” and “self-regulation” that allowed oil industry workers to fill in their own safety inspection reports, according to lead plaintiff Sierra Club’s complaint.

The Well Control Rule created a new system of annual inspections that could only be done by inspectors certified by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Under the revised rule finalized last month, inspectors no longer have to be certified by the government. The new rule also eliminates a requirement that blowout preventers be broken down and assessed by inspectors every five years.

“In seeking to eliminate these common-sense standards, the Trump administration is putting workers in harm’s way and threatening coastal communities with another devastating oil spill,” Sierra Club senior attorney Devorah Ancel said in a statement Tuesday.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill found that onshore experts monitoring real-time data could have alerted Deepwater Horizon’s drilling team about a well pressure problem and possibly prevented the explosion. The rule enacted in 2016 created minimum standards for real-time monitoring of offshore oil rig data by onshore engineers. The rule finalized last month erases those requirements.

The revised rule also changes the standard for blowout preventers, which are now required to “close” rather than “achieve an effective seal.” It also exempts existing offshore oil rigs from blowout preventer requirements and pushes back the deadline for new offshore wells to comply with blowout preventer rules from April 2019 to April 2021.

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

The American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group, supported the rule change, arguing it will provide more flexibility for offshore oil well operators to innovate and develop new technologies.

“Industry’s number one priority is the safety of its workers, surrounding communities and the environment,” said Erik Milito, the Institute’s vice president of upstream and industry operations in an emailed statement. “We support smart and effective regulations, such as the revised well control rule which helps to further manage risks and protect offshore operations, while strengthening environmental safeguards.”

The Sierra Club and its co-plaintiffs claim the Trump administration failed to supply a reasoned explanation for its decision to partially repeal the safety rules. They further allege the Interior Department did not fully consider impacts on the environment or give the public a fair chance to review and comment on the proposed changes.

Their claims include violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. They want a judge to declare the repeal arbitrary and capricious, to find the environmental analysis was unlawful, and to vacate the repeal.

Co-plaintiffs include Natural Resources Defense Council, Health Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, North Carolina Coastal Federation and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

They are represented by Christopher Eaton of Earthjustice in Seattle.

An Interior Department spokeswoman declined to comment on pending litigation, and the U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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