Trump administration halts scientific study on offshore drilling safety

The Trump administration ordered the National Academies of Sciences in early December to halt a study of inspection practices by the offshore oil and gas industry. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

The Trump administration has halted yet another important study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In August, the administration ordered the National Academies to stop a study on the potential health effects for people living near surface coal mining sites in Central Appalachia. This month, the Department of the Interior put the brakes on a study that would review and evaluate how the agency conducts its inspections of offshore oil and gas operations.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) in 2016 requested the study to examine ways the bureau could improve its safety inspections. The study was one in a series undertaken by the congressional chartered National Academies, the Government Accountability Office, and a special presidential commission reviewing the causes of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and subsequent oil spill.

The Interior Department issued a stop-work order, dated December 7, that said within 90 days the order either will be lifted and work on the study can resume, or the contract to perform the study will be terminated. “The National Academies are grateful to the committee members for their service and disappointed that their important study has been stopped,” the academies said Thursday in a statement.

The National Academies committee conducting the study held its first and only meeting in Washington in October. Future meetings planned to be held in the Gulf of Mexico region have been put on hold.

“It is simply beyond belief that the Department of the Interior would order a halt to a study of its work by our nation’s premier independent scientific institution,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Thursday.

The administration’s decision to halt the study is part of a trend led by President Donald Trump to roll back federal efforts to protect the environment and the safety of workers. The administration also has chosen not to rely on objective scientific boards for advice. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, for instance, issued new rules in October banning scientists from sitting on agency advisory boards whose work has been funded by EPA grants.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent analysis and advice to the nation to solve problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.

In August, a National Academies study on the potential health effects for people living near surface coal mining sites in Central Appalachia was stopped pending a review of contracts by the Interior Department. National Academies representatives said they have not received any update on the status of that review and the study remains on hold. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement commissioned the $1 million review.

Given how important the study is to the citizens and communities surrounding these surface mining sites in Appalachia, the National Academies believes the study should be completed and is exploring options to do so. Some private donors have expressed an interest in funding the completion of the study, they said.

Several prior studies have shown an association between mountaintop mining and higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and other health problems in Central Appalachia, the Lexington Herald Leader reported Thursday. The coal industry has disputed the studies, with a 2012 industry-funded study by a Yale University researcher concluding that coal mining is not “per se” the cause of increased mortality in rural Appalachia.

For the Gulf of Mexico study, the National Academies were attempting to define the goals of the Interior Department’s oil and gas inspection program. The panel also was attempting to determine what BSEE officials can learn from inspection programs of other offshore regulators in countries such as Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Mexico, as well as identifying trainings for existing staff and key competencies for new employees.

In 2016, the National Academies completed a related study that looked at the safety practices of the offshore oil and gas industry. The study concluded that industry leaders should encourage collaborative action as a way to improve safety in an industry “as fragmented as the offshore oil and gas industry.”

“As we saw from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, where 11 people lost their lives, offshore oil and gas operations come with significant risks to workers and to ocean ecosystems,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Rosenberg said. “The Department of the Interior, whose job it is to make sure offshore drilling is safe, should welcome a serious investigation into the best way to carry out that job, especially as the administration pushes to expand drilling even further in the Atlantic and the Arctic. Instead, they’re blocking research into the risks.”

Rosenberg believes the decisions to halt the studies on offshore oil and gas inspections and coal mining likely came at the request of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s allies in the fossil fuel industry. The industry’s companies “want to dump the costs of their operations on to the public,” he said.

“While private funding to complete these studies would be welcome, there’s no substitute for public investment. We can’t afford to have this scientific research be proprietary, or come with strings attached,” Rosenberg said.