The Department of the Interior (DOI) is rolling back offshore drilling safety protections put in place after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The announcement comes as the Trump administration’s coastal fossil fuel ambitions are under intense scrutiny following legal setbacks and bipartisan opposition.
Months after it first announced the weakening of safety rules, DOI on Thursday unveiled its final plan in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, an area deeply connected to offshore drilling. The seaport is the country’s leading service point for the majority of Gulf drilling activities.
In a statement, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the move would alleviate “unnecessary regulatory burdens while maintaining safety and environmental protection offshore.”
The Obama-era regulations were finalized in 2016 after six years of development. The stricter rules came in response to the BP disaster, which killed 11 people and spilled at least 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating coastal communities and destroying wildlife. The rules imposed stricter requirements on equipment, including blowout preventers, among other measures.
The rollback weakens those regulations in addition to allowing third-party companies to inspect equipment, rather than government officials, and would also extend the period between inspections. Moreover, companies are no longer required to alert the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) after “false alarms” associated with production.
Environmental groups and safety advocates have argued that the rules have been critical to protecting workers and the environment. Offshore drilling is one of the most dangerous occupations and groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) have strongly opposed efforts to weaken the regulations.
But fossil fuel interests have long complained about the stricter safety precautions and lamented them as costly. The industry has also argued that the rules are hindering President Donald Trump’s energy ambitions offshore. In its initial Federal Register notice, DOI argued that rolling back the regulations “supports the Administration’s objective of facilitating energy dominance” by “reducing unnecessary burdens on stakeholders” in order to bolster fossil fuel production.
And under the Trump administration, enforcement of the regulations has been lax. In an analysis released last month, the nonprofit conservation group Oceana found that nearly 1,600 injuries were reported by offshore operators between 2011 and 2017. And at least 6,500 oil spills occurred in U.S. waters in the last 12 years.
Moreover, DOI handed out nearly 1,700 waivers allowing offshore oil drillers to skirt the current safety regulations in the 20 months after they were introduced.
Groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) argue that the industry already has safety measures in place and that the government’s additional regulations are unnecessary. API has also pushed for massively expanding offshore drilling in U.S. waters. According to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, API spent nearly $7 million on lobbying expenditures in 2018 for issues including offshore drilling. The group has spent almost $1.5 million in 2019 on oil and gas lobbying.
Offshore drilling opponents blasted the rollback on Thursday. Earthjustice, a legal group, said it would “use every tool we have” to challenge the weakening of the regulations. And in a statement to ThinkProgress, Oceana Campaign Director Diane Hoskins called the announcement “a major step backward” with steep safety implications.
“Our government shouldn’t be catering to the demands of the oil industry at the expense of our public and environmental safety,” she said. “We should be implementing new safety reforms, not rolling back the too few safety measures currently in place. More drilling and less safety is a recipe for disaster.”
The announcement came a week after Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, backed away from plans to open virtually all U.S. waters to drilling following legal setbacks. Coastal communities across the political spectrum have united against those ambitions and Republicans have expressed concerns that such a drilling expansion could harm the party in 2020.
But DOI has yet to officially retract the plans and the department has not elaborated on its plans. DOI is also still processing seismic permits in the Atlantic Ocean, despite push-back from shoreline lawmakers and businesses.