April 20 marked the ninth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, an offshore drilling disaster that killed 11 men and triggered a pollution nightmare as uncontrolled oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico for almost three months. Last week, shortly after that anniversary, the Trump administration announced a rollback of regulations that had been written to prevent such an incident from happening again.
This should horrify you. Just three years after adopting the regulations in response to public outcry and the recommendations of a presidential commission, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has concluded that its rules caused “unnecessary burdens” on the industry.
The 2010 gulf oil spill was the largest single pollution event in the history of the United States. The disaster was caused by a complex combination of decisions by Transocean, owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig; BP, which owned the oil well; and Halliburton, which provided cement for the walls of the well. Together, these operators compromised the design of the oil well and ignored pressure changes as they installed a temporary seal on the well, thus causing a deadly blowout that led to a massive fire on the rig and an enormous oil spill once the rig sank to the sea floor days later.
The nation was transfixed for weeks as remotely operated equipment provided a webcam view of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The public learned that the oil and gas industry might have the technology to drill for oil a mile below the surface of the ocean, but it did not have the capacity to shut off the flow of oil once drilling equipment was damaged. After numerous failed attempts, a temporary cap developed jointly by industry and government experts shut off the flow on July 15.
The subsequent investigation by a presidential commission concluded that the blowout “was the product of several individual missteps and oversights by BP, Halliburton and Transocean, which government regulators lacked the authority, the necessary resources, and the technical expertise to prevent.” Clearly, stronger regulations and a greater investment in government oversight were needed.
The Obama administration delayed the adoption of new regulations governing “blowout preventers” and other well control practices and equipment for six years. During that period, the agencies in charge offered opportunities for industry input and public comment. New rules were finally published in April 2016.
Last week’s revision of those rules offers many reasons for concern. Mandatory requirements have been replaced with standards written by the American Petroleum Institute, the major trade association for the oil and gas industry. Blowout preventers may be tested less frequently. And the third-party reviewers of drilling safety need no longer be certified by the government.
Each of the rollbacks places greater reliance on industry and reduces the role of neutral overseers. We’ve already seen what happens when the oil and gas industry regulates itself with insufficient government oversight. The new rules do nothing but create another accident waiting to happen.
S. Elizabeth Birnbaum was the director of the Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for offshore oil and gas leasing, at the time of the Deepwater Horizon accident. She serves as senior counsel at Arabella Advisors. The column was originally published in The Washington Post.