Proposed changes to two rules would lessen requirements imposed after the deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.
The Trump administration is overhauling how federal officials monitor safety procedures on offshore-drilling operations, revising two rules enacted in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill on the grounds that they are overly burdensome on industry.
On Friday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) will publish new regulations for the production-safety-systems rule, which addresses devices used during offshore-oil production.
The agency has also drafted changes to another set of regulations, called the well-control rule, which aims to prevent the kind of blowout that killed 11 workers.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, released more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It killed thousands of dolphins, sea turtles and other marine animals, exposed hundreds of cleanup workers and other Gulf residents to toxic chemicals and prompted a six-month shutdown of all deep-water drilling in the Gulf.
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Also Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Interior said proposed rules governing hydraulic fracturing and other oil- and gas-drilling practices on government lands would be rescinded, effective Friday.
The rules developed under President Barack Obama would have applied to drilling on federal lands located mainly in the West. The rules would have required companies to disclose chemicals used in fracking, the process of pumping pressurized water underground to break open hydrocarbon deposits.
As for the offshore drilling changes, even before President Donald Trump’s election, many oil and gas officials said the Obama administration had overreached on rules designed to forestall a future catastrophe. Those rules inhibited offshore production, they argued, and Trump administration officials repeated that stand Thursday.
“It’s time for a paradigm shift” in regulations on the outer continental shelf, which accounts for one in every six barrels of domestic oil, BSEE Director Scott Angelle said in a statement. “There was an assumption made previously that only more rules would increase safety, but ultimately it is not an either/or proposition. We can actually increase domestic energy production and increase safety and environmental protection.”
Industry leaders applauded the move.
“Safety experts in the offshore oil and gas industry now have the opportunity to comment on this important regulation,” Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said in a statement.
Michael Bromwich, who served as the first director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said Thursday that because both rules did not take full effect until last year, “the argument that the regulatory burden needs to be lifted … is not credible.”
While the BSEE released a copy of the production-safety rule Thursday, it has not made the well-control proposal public. A copy of the latter rule, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, was obtained separately by The Washington Post.
In March, Trump issued an executive order instructing agencies to reduce undue burdens on domestic energy production. Angelle, who was installed by the president in May as head of the BSEE, cited that order as one of the reasons the agency decided to change the production-safety rule.
Neither proposal amounts to a wholesale reversal of existing regulations, according to experts, but instead minimizes some of industry’s obligations and changes compliance terms in several instances to language favored by drillers.
The proposed rule unveiled Thursday, for example, eliminates a requirement that safety and pollution-prevention equipment be inspected by independent auditors certified by the BSEE. A bipartisan presidential commission established after the disaster had recommended such inspections.
Instead, under new regulations, oil companies will use industry-set “recommended practices” for ensuring that safety equipment works — as was done before the Deepwater Horizon incident.
Recommended practices by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute “are simply that — they make recommendations but don’t require anything,” said Nancy Leveson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as a senior adviser to the presidential commission.
“The documents are filled with ‘should’ instead of ‘must,’ ” she noted in an email.
The publication of the proposed changes kicks off a 30-day comment period.
The BSEE’s proposed revisions also include several other changes that the industry has long sought. For example, while it does not change the level of pressure the agency requires operators to maintain in a given well to avoid an accident, it removes the word “safe” in describing that balance. In the case of pressure tests, which failed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, those no longer have to “show” that a well is in balance. Instead, they should “indicate” that.
Some changes are more substantive. The existing well-control rule requires that companies complete any investigation and failure analysis within 120 days of an accident that shuts down a well. The proposed rule, by contrast, calls for this process to start within 120 days and provides no specific end date.
The agency declined to comment on the proposed revisions to the well-control rule, saying it is still under review at the Office of Management and Budget, BSEE spokesman Greg Julian said in an email.