Scientists are still years if not decades away from fully understanding the extent of the damage from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But already, the Trump administration is maneuvering to loosen the safety regulations methodically put in place after the worst oil spill in American history. This is a risky, unnecessary step that all Florida lawmakers should oppose.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the federal agency that oversees oil and gas drilling, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, proposed scaling back some safety measures the industry says are burdensome. If approved, the measure would repeal a requirement that the agency certify third-party inspectors of equipment, including blowout preventers, a critical last line of defense that failed in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the gulf. The explosion on the rig killed 11 workers, sent millions of barrels of oil gushing into the gulf and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.
The proposal would also relax requirements that companies stream real-time oil production data to onshore facilities that regulators could review. While the government would retain a standard dictating how much pressure companies would need to maintain while drilling a well, the agency wants to eliminate the term "safe" from a section of the rule. The industry argues the term "safe" is moot given that modern safety practices already accommodate that goal. If the changes take effect, they could save the industry more than $900 million over a decade.
The agency’s justification, according to the Journal, is that the Obama administration’s post-Deepwater reforms failed to account for how the industry adapted after the disaster. That baseless argument is premature at best. The federal government still doesn’t have a full picture of the environmental damage to the gulf. Federal officials spent years under Obama working with the industry on improving offshore safety practices and emergency response, but those plans largely are untested, and the Deepwater tragedy exposed the gap between safety plans that exist on paper and how they perform in the real world.
The harsh and unpredictable environment a mile under the sea requires that drilling standards put safety first. These revisions would not only curtail the government’s role in enforcing reasonable safety standards, but reduce the level of corporate accountability in an operation that involves an ever-evolving mix of contractors and subcontractors alike. The post-Deepwater reforms were also intended to plug a serious hole by creating a culture where platform operators, corporate managers and federal regulators improved their communications and worked more as a team. But these changes return an honor system to an industry with a bad history of self-policing, and they would keep government more in the dark about an operation that is inherently dangerous.
This rollback in safety was widely expected after President Donald Trump in April ordered the BSEE’s parent agency, the Interior Department, to consider repealing "regulations that slow job creation." And it comes as the BSEE has halted an independent scientific study of offshore oil inspections that was established after the BP spill. Given the risks to Florida of drilling in the gulf, state leaders in both parties need to oppose the administration’s move and work with Congress to codify more of these safety reforms into law. If there is any lesson from the BP disaster, it’s the price the nation is forced to pay by short-cutting on safety. If the administration doesn’t get it, then Congress and the state of Florida must be heard.