By Jacob Carter, Union of Concerned Scientists
Recent reports show that political appointees at the Department of the Interior (DOI) ignored experts who opposed issuing a rule rolling back safety measures for offshore oil rig workers.
This is not the first time, however, that experts have been ignored or information has been manipulated to ensure that oil rig worker safety is weakened. The evidence is building that this was a coordinated strategy between political officials at DOI to allow the fossil fuel industry to profit at the expense of worker’s lives.
A new number two at Interior: Katharine MacGregor
First, let’s talk about some recent news about who will now be leading the charge at Interior: Katharine MacGregor, who was just confirmed this week as deputy secretary and second in command at Interior. MacGregor has certainly been a part of coordinated efforts to weaken safeguards at Interior that protect public health, worker safety, and our environment. Regardless of her title, let me assure you that she does not work in the public’s interest—her interests lie with the fossil fuel industry.
MacGregor is a former registered lobbyist for Alcalde & Fay and former staffer for the House Natural Resources Committee where she formed strong ties to the fossil fuel industry. MacGregor is so well-known to the fossil fuel industry that the phrase “We’ll call Kate” has reportedly become an inside joke among industry officials who view a call to their insider as a means to undo safeguards.
The fossil fuel industry has applauded MacGregor for being confirmed as a political appointee at the very agency that regulates, well, that industry. It is no secret why—one can fuel the dreams of the other.
In her role as DOI’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, MacGregor has already been tied to bypassing safety and environmental concerns to permit an oil firm to frack in Oklahoma. She also played a role in ensuring that a National Academies of Sciences study on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining was halted—quite an unprecedented move in the science policy world. (In a set of emails obtained by EarthJustice and Coal River Mountain Watch through a freedom of information act (FOIA) request, MacGregor clearly encourages a career employee to ensure that the study was stopped. You can see the relevant emails here and here.)
This is who will be second-in-command at DOI and overseeing the stewardship of your national parks, public lands, wildlife, and other resources. And let us not forget who is number one at the agency: David Bernhardt currently serves as Secretary of the Interior and is also a former lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry. Imagine the safeguards that these two will be able to undo now.
But let’s shift the focus now to how DOI political officials, like MacGregor, have crafted a strategy to undo oil rig worker safety.
Another scientific study canceled
The effort to roll back oil rig workers’ safety began when the Trump administration abruptly canceled a National Academies of Sciences study intended to investigate ways to improve safety inspections of offshore oil rigs.
While it is odd for any administration to cancel a study led by the country’s most prestigious scientific institution, it also was odd that this study was halted because the agency it was intended for ASKED for the study to be conducted…then made a U-turn and asked for the study to be halted.
(And if you’re keeping count, yes that is two studies being conducted by the most prestigious scientific institution in the country canceled at the DOI. Both were investigating how the fossil fuel industry would impact public health. Gee. I can’t imagine who would cancel those studies and why? Again, the relevant emails are here and here.)
Public comments ignored as the waivers flourished
In September 2018, the Trump administration released a proposal for rolling back many of those safety requirements (subscription required). Many assumed that the administration would wait for public comment and review processes before putting the rollback into action, but this did not happen.
Instead, in 2019 Politico revealed that the Trump administration had issued nearly 1,700 waivers on the offshore safety rules to states, largely to bypass rules related to blowout preventers—the last line of defense that ensures an uncontrolled oil spill doesn’t occur.
Engineers’ safety concerns ignored
And as of this week, we’ve learned that engineers were concerned about the proposed rule and how it would impact worker safety. These engineers had expressed their concerns in memos, but Scott Angelle, the political appointee in charge of leading DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) ordered the engineers to toss that opposition language in the garbage.
Because who cares about scientific information coming from experts with years of experience on these issues? What could they possibly know more than Scott Angelle, who isn’t an engineer, has consistently advocated on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, and keeps his calendar full of meetings with fossil fuel industry executives. He clearly knows what works best for worker safety and public health (sarcasm fully meant here).
And the rollback of worker safety was issued
The Trump administration issued the final rollback of safety measures in May 2019, putting more lives and our environment at risk of another catastrophe like Deepwater Horizon.
DOI officials say that they can achieve the same level of safety for workers and our environment with the revisions, even though their own engineers disagree. Take a minute to think about that argument because they are essentially saying, “We can achieve the same level of safety by getting rid of safety measures.” How does that even make sense? That’s like saying that I’ll achieve the same quality of brownies if I leave the sugar and chocolate out. It’s just never going to be true. Additionally, it’s worth noting that BSEE didn’t even conduct a risk analysis on the revised rule.
So why ignore scientific evidence, cancel an investigation by the most prestigious scientific institution in our country on how to improve safety standards, issue waivers quietly, and roll back protections for workers? You may have guessed it already—money.
The Interior Department estimates that the rollback will save industry more than $1.5 billion over 10 years. According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “Most of the savings from the final rule—$919 million of it—is attributed to requiring less frequent testing of safety systems known as blowout preventers, which are the last line of defense against runaway wells.” Blowout preventers—the safety mechanism widely regarded to be the culprit of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
The majority of public comments submitted in response to the proposed rule were in opposition, including the many of its major proposals that roll back offshore oil rig workers’ safety. Yet, in the end, the administration didn’t listen to the public.
Let’s tally up the evidence
OK, so this is what we know. We have a number of conflicted individuals who have formally represented and have strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, and who are now leading fossil fuel industry regulations at DOI—David Bernhardt, Katharine MacGregor, and Scott Angelle, among others.
These political appointees have sidelined scientific information from informing Interior policy decisions by halting scientific studies and censoring their own experts. They have refused to follow established processes and began implementing rules before they had fully gone through the entire rulemaking process. It seems clear they never really cared about the full process and never intended to listen to public comments given that they still put the rule in place despite overwhelming public opposition.
And as for risk assessment? Smisk smassesment. Who needs one of those? Certainly not the workers whose very lives depend on safety precautions when you’re working in one of the most dangerous jobs known to mankind.
Let me sum all this up by asking you, the reader, a question: have you ever asked for someone’s advice even though you really didn’t need to because your mind was already made up? That’s pretty much what has been happening at Interior. While the agency has hundreds of experts who work to ensure that the health of the public and our environment remains intact, the work of those hundreds of people is being sidelined.
When you’re making a decision that may put the lives of workers on the line, you should probably seek out some expert advice. But at Interior, a select few leaders with ties to the fossil fuel industry have clearly made up their minds about policy decisions they’d like to see put in place, and they’re willing to put facts, worker safety, and public opinion to the side to make those policies come to life.