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Trump administration loosens Obama-era offshore oil and gas safety rules

03 May 2019

On May 2 the US Government made public changes to offshore drilling safety regulations, which had been imposed by the previous administration after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This event killed 11 people and released almost 5 million barrels of oil into the sea, the worst oil spill in American history.

Deepwater Horizon rig ablaze after well blowout - Image: USCG
Deepwater Horizon rig ablaze after well blowout - Image: USCG

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who was confirmed by the Senate last month to head the department that oversees the nation’s public lands and waters, announced the new rules in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, the major onshore base for most companies that drill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bernhardt called the rule change an elimination of "unnecessary regulatory burdens while maintaining safety and environmental protection offshore."

The oil industry praised the move. Environmental groups warned that the laxer rules could pave the way for similar crises to happen again.

Among the safety changes put in place is a significant loosening of requirement for oil companies to test blowout preventers, the last line of defence against well blowouts, and which were at the heart of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Other changes to the Well Control Rule included loosening requirements for real-time monitoring of offshore drilling operations and easing requirements for companies to hold third-party certifications of easy access emergency equipment, to be used in the case of explosions or oil and gas leaks from wells.

According to the New York Times, the new rules included some changes that had been sought by the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the oil industry. A bipartisan commission appointed by President Barack Obama to investigate the Deepwater Horizon disaster had specifically cautioned federal regulators against following the institute’s guidance, writing in its 2014 report that “API-proposed safety standards have increasingly failed to reflect best industry practices and have instead expressed the ‘lowest common denominator.’”

This move can be seen as part of the Trump administration’s programme to facilitate the expansion of offshore drilling in the nation’s coastal waters. Last year the Interior Department proposed opening almost the entire United States coastline to drilling, although Bernhardt recently said the administration may delay those plans while court challenges are addressed.

The Department said that 80% of the original rule was left unchanged under the revision and that the alterations would provide "smarter regulation" and give more regulatory certainty.

Separately, last September, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) moved to ease provisions of another key drilling rule focused on safety requirements for the period when an offshore platform is producing oil and natural gas, rather than the drilling process.

The BSEE also announced a new plan last March to increase the time officials spent physically inspecting oil rigs, but drop the frequency of their visits, a move it argued was more efficient.

The final rule will become effective 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which is expected to happen this week or next week.

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