By Matt Kent and Amit Narang, Public Citizen
On this date 10 years ago, corporate greed caused the worst environmental disaster in American history: the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were killed. Five million barrels of oil poured into the ocean. The damage was so severe that some marine wildlife still hasn’t recovered.
While people are familiar with the disaster itself, what the public doesn’t know is that BP successfully lobbied receptive Trump administration officials to roll back the very safety standards that the Obama administration put in place to prevent massive offshore drilling catastrophes.
In 2019, BP and other major oil corporations were given two meetings with a key White House office, attended by the head of the agency in charge of offshore safety, regarding industry-friendly revisions to the Obama standards. There were no equivalent meetings with groups representing coastal communities, the fishing industry or our environment.
The 2019 meetings are part of a larger theme of the offshore oil industry and its lobbyists enjoying easy access to top Trump administration officials – namely U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Scott Angelle and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt – who have been eager to ramp up drilling.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon calamity, the Obama administration worked to improve safety standards in this dangerous industry by imposing the Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control rule. This protection, also known as the well control rule, imposed important safety and inspection standards.
In 2016, the BSEE (part of the Interior Department) finalized the well control rule, which was the culmination of years of work by expert regulators. But after Donald Trump became president, opening up new areas to drilling became the top priority.
In the opening months of his administration, Trump issued an executive order directing agencies to “suspend, revise, or rescind [policies] that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.” In other words, the administration backed wholesale deregulation of public health and safety rules for the drilling industry that cut fossil fuel industry profit margins.
Then in May 2017, Trump appointed Angelle, a longtime Louisiana politician with close ties to Big Oil, to head BSEE. In September 2017, Angelle said his agency was “moving from creating hardships to creating partnerships, from an era of isolation to an era of cooperation” with the industry. In a clear example of how close he is to the Big Oil, Angelle infamously gave his personal cell phone numberto a room full of industry executives in 2018.
A Public Citizen report in March 2018 found that at least nine companies fined by BSEE in recent years had made corporate, personal or family member donations to Angelle’s political campaigns. Specifically, the report found that these nine companies or associated individuals contributed $142,750 directly to Angelle’s campaigns in the past.
Under Angelle, BSEE began work on weakening the well control rule by replacing it with a newer, industry-friendly rule. The new rule, finalized in 2019, is riddled with exceptions and loopholes that allow industry to selectively comply with the 2016 standard, leaving open the possibility of another catastrophic blowout.
As the weaker well control rule moved through the regulatory process, Angelle and other Interior officials repeatedly met with oil industry lobbyists and executives, including representatives from BP, according to White House meeting records. Angelle was so committed to doing BP and the oil industry’s bidding that he blocked his own agency career staff from making their safety concerns about the rollback public.
Angelle’s boss, David Bernhardt, has a history of cozy ties with the oil industry. Bernhardt represented the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), the trade group for offshore drilling firms, in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups over oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico. Bernhardt appears to have been a regular speaker at NOIA’s annual meetings.
At one meeting in his role as NOIA representative, Bernhardt gave a presentation on regulatory issues in the wake of the April 2010 oil rig explosion, arguing that federal enforcement authority does not apply to contractors such as Halliburton, the BP contractor that was found to have used flawed cement at the BP offshore well. A federal court later agreed with Bernhardt’s argument.
Like Angelle, Bernhardt has been eager to meet with the offshore drilling industry. A Public Citizen analysis released in January 2020 found that during a period of around two years, Bernhardt and his top deputy held 10 meetings with the American Petroleum Institute, nine meetings with the NOIA and multiple individual meetings with Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips.
Public servants like Angelle and Bernhardt have a duty to regulate in the public interest, not in the interest of corporate boards. The outcome of the well control rule is the perfect demonstration of a what happens when regulatory agencies are captured by monied interests.
In this instance, the entities that spurred the need for a safety regulation were the very same people who led the effort to roll it back.
It’s just another example of the fox guarding the henhouse – in an administration packed with captured regulators.