Is the Trump Team Making Oil Drilling Less 'Safe'?

In a move the oil industry welcomes, the Trump administration wants to rollback several offshore drilling safety measures implemented in 2010 after the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates oil and gas drilling, has proposed scaling back some measures the oil industry says are burdensome and could save companies more than $900 million in a decade.

If the proposal is approved, it would strike out a provision requiring bureau certification for third-party inspectors of equipment including the blowout preventer that failed in the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing 11 people. It would also relax rules to stream real time oil production data to onshore facilities that government regulators can review.

Though a standard dictating how much pressure companies need to maintain while drilling a well would remain, the bureau wants to eliminate the term “safe” from the section set by the Obama administration. Industry groups argue that modern technologies eliminate the need for the “drilling margin,” which is the minimum amount of mud and fluid over a well to protect against a pressure surge that could cause a blowout like the Deepwater Horizon incident. 

12_25_17_Deepwater A hard hat from an oil worker lies in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on East Grand Terre Island, Louisiana June 8, 2010. Reuters

“Based on BSEE experience during the implementation of the original [well control rule], BSEE has concluded that the term ‘safe’ creates ambiguity in that it could be read to suggest that additional unspecified standards, beyond those expressly stated, may be imposed in the approval of proposed drilling margins,” a preamble included with to the proposal states.

When the bureau began reviewing regulations in June, its current director, Scott Angelle, said the Obama administration’s Deepwater Horizon response was too broad and did not take into account that other operators learned from BP PLC’s mistake in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It was obvious to me that back then there was a conclusion that it was a systemic problem, and yet I don’t believe there was evidence at the time that it was a systemic problem,” Angelle said at the time.

Angelle is a longtime advocate for the oil industry in the Gulf. He, along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, have focused on reversing policies from the Obama era that were aimed at providing more government oversight of oil production and exploration in an attempt to prevent spills in the future.