Trump Administration Muzzles Own Safety Experts on Offshore Drilling Rule

Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton explains how the Trump administration ignored the recommendations of its own engineers when it rolled back safety regulations, according to a news investigation.

You’d think by now, almost 10 years after one of the worst manmade environmental disasters in American history — the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster — that we would’ve learned our lesson about the need for offshore drilling safety. But no. In its endless thirst for fossil fuels, the Trump administration has been gutting safety regulations and scaling back enforcement against the recommendations of its own safety experts. At the same time, oil spills and offshore accidents have been on the rise. 

Evidence shows that we need more safety oversight right now, not less. A recent review of federal data by the Center for American Progress found that the rate of offshore oil spills has increased six-fold in the past two years. Over the same period, the relative frequency of worker injuries offshore increased by more than 20%. 

Yet just last year, the agency in charge of offshore safety, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), gutted two safety regulations that had been enacted to prevent another Deepwater Horizon disaster: the Production Safety Systems Rule and the Well Control Rule. That move wasn’t particularly surprising, given a Politico investigation that found the agency had been routinely waiving compliance with the rules.

In June, Earthjustice, along with nine other environmental groups, filed a lawsuit challenging the Well Control Rule rollback. In issuing the repeal, BSEE disregarded the extensive evidence and expert findings that went into the original Well Control Rule. The agency failed to consider how the rollback would harm offshore safety and the environment — it simply claimed the repeal was “safe” without offering any support. It is legally required to explain its reasoning.

Now, a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal suggests things are worse than we believed. The Journal reports that career safety engineers at BSEE had recommended that critical safety measures from the Well Control Rule remain in place. But BSEE Director Scott Angelle reportedly ordered staff to delete evidence of those recommendations from official memos and instead endorse industry-requested rollbacks. One engineer said that Angelle “did not want a recommendation from the [engineering] team.”

The Journal’s reporting suggests that BSEE’s adoption of the Well Control Rule rollback ignored the safety recommendations of its own engineers. That evidence seriously calls into question the agency’s claims that the repeal maintains safety, and reinforces the claims in our lawsuit. The agency appears to be rolling the dice when it comes to offshore safety.

Even with the safety rules that do still apply, the administration has not been doing a great job at making sure industry is complying. The Center for American Progress found that BSEE has been conducting fewer inspections and taking fewer enforcement actions under the Trump administration.

Unsurprisingly, morale around the agency is low. “I’ve never seen anything this broken,” a seven-year BSEE veteran recently told E&E News.

The national commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon disaster warned that “without effective government oversight, the offshore oil and gas industry will not adequately reduce the risk of accidents, nor prepare effectively to respond in emergencies.” The Trump administration is not heeding that warning — and the consequences could be dire.

As a senior attorney with the Oceans Program, Chris's work focuses on fighting offshore oil and gas development and protecting marine ecosystems and wildlife.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon.
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. (Photo Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)