As Trump Moves to Expand Offshore Drilling, He Proposes Shrinking Safety Protections. What Could Go Wrong?

Eight years after the BP disaster in the Gulf, the administration aims to relax the rules designed to prevent catastrophic explosions and spills.

January 05, 2018
Oil burn-off from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, June 2010

Petty Officer First Class John Masson/Coast Guard

While much of the country was preoccupied with the freakish weather on the East Coast Thursday afternoon, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke held a call with reporters to announce that his agency would be unveiling a five-year plan that will ultimately allow offshore oil and gas developers to drill pretty much anywhere they’d like to off American coasts. The plan, which overturns protections created by President Obama in late 2016, will be vigorously challenged by environmental organizations and aggressively rejected by coastal governors (Democrats and Republicans). If the level of immediate public outrage is any indication, Zinke and his boss, President Donald Trump, are in for a much bigger fight than they could have imagined.

Thursday’s announcement strongly suggests that Trump, Zinke, & co. believe Americans have forgotten all about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the worst of its kind in U.S. history. In that 2010 disaster, 11 people were killed and nearly 5 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of miscalculations, safety shortcuts, and a systematic “normalization of deviance” by the oil company BP.

But that’s not all. Trump’s Interior Department has recklessly set the stage for the next big offshore oil spill, and many more to come, by proposing major changes to our nation’s offshore-drilling rules just days before announcing plans to open up nearly all of our nation’s coastlines. If enacted, these rule changes would substantially weaken much-needed protections put in place after the Deepwater Horizon disaster—protections designed to prevent blowouts and to ensure the independent certification of equipment that has been known to fail, explosively, under stress. As one former Interior Department employee who helped create these rules told the Wall Street Journal recently, relaxing these protections to the degree proposed by the administration “significantly increases the risk of a catastrophic accident.”

But doing so could also save the oil and gas industry more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the next decade, and the Trump administration has apparently decided that it’s all worth the risk.

That might sound like a lot of money, but consider this: The cost of the Deepwater Horizon explosion to BP has been nearly $62 billion so far. It’s reasonable to think of that price tag as the cost of not having the kinds of rules and protections that President Trump seems determined to take away. But in the view of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), these safeguards constitute “unnecessary burdens” on our oil and gas industry, and need to be rolled back in order to unleash America’s full energy potential. You will probably be unsurprised to learn that, according to the Wall Street Journal, oil industry groups also believe that weakening these rules and protections makes a lot of sense.

According to the Obama administration officials who formed and ran the first BSEE, the agency was created expressly to improve and enforce safety, as denoted by its name. Now, these same officials worry, the agency’s mission has been distorted—some might even say corrupted—so that the BSEE today serves more as a compliant handmaiden for oil and gas interests. Here we have yet another government mechanism being redefined and blithely applied toward the Trump administration’s stated goal of eliminating any rules that might be thought of as posing an obstacle to domestic energy production.

So what are the odds that relaxing these requirements will actually lead to another Deepwater Horizon–style blowout? It might be easier to calculate had the BSEE not also just suspended a pending report on offshore drilling operations that was undertaken to help make these operations safer. But that’s exactly what the agency did in December, ordering the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to immediately stop work on their 21-month, $580,000 study dedicated to exploring new and improved safety protocols and technologies. (In a press release announcing the stop-work order, the National Academies noted that this marks the second time in the last four months that the Interior Department had suspended a study designed to improve public safety; last August, a report looking at the health impacts for people living near Appalachian coal mining sites suffered a similar fate.)

The president and many of the people who work for him must think that we’ve forgotten what it looks like when offshore drillers cut corners and “normalize deviance.” Some people undoubtedly have.

But I can guarantee you that people living in Gulf states haven’t forgotten. Nor has anyone who spent any time near the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion after the fact and witnessed its devastating long-term effects on the local environment and economy. They remember, vividly and with great regret, all the costs. They remember because they’re still paying those costs.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney in the Nature Program’s Oceans division, has nearly 50 years of experience defending our coasts from offshore drilling.

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