After that disastrous spill, the Obama administration enacted a series of reforms to improve the safety of oil rigs — reforms that the Trump administration has since rolled back. A Center for American Progress review of government data finds that oil spills and injuries and accidents from offshore drilling are now on the rise, threatening to erase progress made in the 10 years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Weak oversight and reduced enforcement
In late 2017 and 2018, pursuant to an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, the US Department of the Interior began easing its oversight of drilling and weakening safety standards that the Obama administration had implemented in response to Deepwater Horizon.
During the early months, the Trump administration appointed the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) – an agency created after Deepwater Horizon to regulate offshore drilling – under the leadership of Scott Angelle, the former secretary of natural resources for Louisiana who served for years after him. Board of Directors of the Oil and Gas Pipelines Company. During the Obama administration, Engel helped lead the oil and gas industry’s battle against offshore drilling safety reforms.
After Angelle’s arrival in 2017, the number of inspections and enforcement actions by BSEE has decreased. According to agency data, BSEE inspectors made 13 percent fewer inspection visits to rigs, rigs, pipelines and other facilities in the first three years of the Trump administration (2017-2019) than they did during the last three years of the Obama administration (2014-2016). This data contradicts Director Engel’s public claims that inspections are on the rise under the Trump administration. A BSEE spokesperson explained to CAP that Angelle was referring to the total number of “types of inspections” – or inspection procedures – that the BSEE was performing, with inspectors sometimes performing several inspections during a single inspection visit.
However, the agency’s data also shows that BSEE inspectors took 38 percent fewer enforcement action – by issuing so-called incidents of non-compliance – against offshore oil and gas operators from 2017 to 2019 than they did from 2014 to 2016. It’s hard to explain That’s a rapid decline in enforcement action with the theory that oil and gas companies have suddenly woken up to the benefits of voluntary compliance with safety guidelines.
Moreover, a Politico The investigation found that BSEE had granted nearly 1,700 waivers that allowed companies to avoid complying with stronger blowout prevention safety standards – an important piece of safety equipment that could serve as a last line of defense against well blowouts, oil spills and other disasters.
As Director Angelle scaled back BSEE inspections and enforcement, he also reversed policy decisions the agency made to reduce accident risk after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
On December 7, 2017, the Trump administration abruptly canceled a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study that was intended to improve the way BSEE conducts oil and gas inspections abroad.
Days later, the agency released a proposed rule to weaken oversight and safety procedures for offshore oil and gas production facilities, and reverse repairs implemented after Deepwater Horizon. Then, in May 2018, Angelle’s BSEE issued a proposal to weaken the Blowout Prevention and Well Control Standards – standards written based on lessons learned from the mechanical, human and systemic failures that led to Deepwater Horizon.
After dozens of calls and personal meetings between Director Angelle and oil and gas industry officials, and Angelle’s direct intervention to override recommendations of BSEE engineers and experts, the Trump administration ended rolling back production safety regulations and blast prevention rules in September 2018 and May 2019.
Oil spills and accidents on the rise
With weak safety standards, inspections and enforcement actions in decline, oil spills and injuries from offshore drilling operations rose.
In 2018 and 2019, two years after the Trump administration began a complete rollback of environmental and safety standards, the amount of oil spilled per barrel produced on the outer continental shelf increased sixfold compared to the previous two years – 2016 and 2017.
The safety of workers has also been affected. A CAP review of data included in BSEE’s recently released budget documents reveals that the number of hourly casualties operating at oil and gas facilities on the Federal Outer Continental Shelf increased 21 percent in 2018 and 2019 compared to the previous biennium of 2016 and 2017.
A BSEE spokesperson responded to this analysis by noting that two individual incidents – 1,900 barrels spilled in fiscal year 2016 and 16,000 barrels in fiscal 2018 – accounted for a significant portion of the oil spilled during those periods and that, following the incidents, BSEE made “recommendations to the industry regarding Undersea leaks.” A BSEE spokesperson also noted an agency statement warning that data and trends from an individual year are “suggestive, not definitive, with respect to the direction of industry safety outcomes.”
The Trump administration’s Department of the Interior has yet to publicly acknowledge that safety and oversight trends in offshore drilling are worsening. Director Angelle recently argued that “BSEE is driving safety performance and environmental stewardship improvements beyond regulations through innovation and collaboration.” However, factual evidence, as documented by BSEE’s inspections, enforcement, injury and spill data, directly contradicts Angelle’s claims that it is bringing “improvements” to marine safety and environmental protection.
Both Home Secretary David Bernhard and BSEE Director Angell are set to testify before Congress in the coming days, policymakers have an opportunity to hold the Trump administration accountable for the consequences of its lax oversight of offshore drilling and demand an immediate course correction.
This opportunity for congressional oversight cannot come any time soon. The tenth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is a bleak reminder that the margins between routine operations and a deadly disaster are narrow. By cutting corners on the safety of offshore drilling, the Trump administration is taking a dangerous and unacceptable gamble on the lives of American workers and the health of coastal communities.
Matt Lee Ashley is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Steve Bonitatipus, Kate Kelly, Miriam Goldstein, Bill Raab, and Kenan Alexander for their contributions to this column.