By Joel Clement, Union of Concerned Scientists
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig suffered an uncontrollable well blowout and a series of explosions that killed 11 people. Two days later the rig sank 5,000 feet to the ocean floor and the well continued to gush oil for more than three months, causing the largest oil spill in US history and a regional economic disaster. The federal judge who assigned guilt described the operators as reckless and negligent.
A bipartisan commission, convened by President Obama in the aftermath of the accident, found that the cause was twofold—lax federal inspection and inadequate safety practices on the part of offshore operators. The Republican Congress approved additional funds to beef up inspections, while the Obama administration implemented the necessary offshore safety requirements in 2016. Everyone hoped that such a disaster would never be repeated.
Enter the Trump administration, and a series of actions intended to weaken these protections on behalf of the oil industry.
Attacks on science and offshore drilling safety
First, they went after the science. In December 2017, the Trump administration halted a National Academy of Sciences study looking at how the Interior Department’s offshore regulating body, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), could improve its offshore inspection practices. BSEE itself had requested the study after the Government Accountability Office criticized BSEE in 2016 for outdated inspection practices. The Interior Department provided no reasoning for cancelling the study, an action that seemed counter to BSEE’s safety-focused mission.
Then in September 2018, at the behest of oil producers, the Interior Department released its proposal for rolling back the offshore drilling safety rules put in place following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Given the oft-cited struggles of the offshore oil production industry to ensure safe operations, and the Deepwater Horizon as an extremely prominent case study in failure, observers and lawmakers were understandably stunned that the administration would consider such a handout to the oil and gas industry.
A secretive ploy to get around existing safety rules
What observers did not know, however, was that the administration was not waiting for the public comment and review process that is required before the rollback can go into force. Instead, the Interior Department had already been quietly granting hundreds of waivers to the offshore safety rules—with a particular focus on sidestepping the rules regarding blowout preventers, widely understood to be the culprit behind the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
There are no records showing why Interior granted these 1,679 waivers, and the agency hid the existence of the waivers from public view until a Freedom of Information Act request brought them to light. This lack of transparency and disregard for public process has been a hallmark of the Trump administration, and the Interior Department in particular, but the disdain for American health and safety in the wake of the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon disaster takes this neglect to a whole new level.
A disgrace to public service
In a recent report, the Union of Concerned Scientists documented two years of non-stop Trump administration attacks on science and evidence-based policy, demonstrating how agencies are ignoring urgent concerns about climate change and are instead promoting an industry-first agenda.
In stifling the science and then using a secretive ploy to get around existing regulations, the administration is showing its hand once again. They will stoop to anything to serve their industry masters, even if it means putting American workers at risk, compromising the marine and fishing economies, and hastening the dramatic impacts of climate change.
Do you remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster? The fishermen of the Gulf of Mexico remember; the scientists who studied the spill’s impacts on birds and animals remember; the beach towns along the coast remember.
The families of the 11 men killed in the explosion remember.
For trying to get us to forget, for muzzling science, and for secretly undermining safety protections, this administration is a disgrace to public service.