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March 5, 2021

Judge Rules Damning Trump-Era Documents Must Be Released in Well Control Lawsuit

Victory: Documents show staff objections to Well Control Rule rollback were deleted from record

Contacts

Maggie Caldwell, (347) 527-6397, mcaldwell@earthjustice.org

Washington, D.C.

A judge yesterday granted environmental groups’ motion for the release of Trump administration internal documents regarding the Interior Department’s decision to rollback an offshore drilling safety rule designed to prevent another Deepwater Horizon tragedy. The Well Control and Blowout Preventer Rule, finalized under the Obama administration, required real-time oversight of risky drilling operations and precautionary failsafe measures to stop a spill when things go wrong. Trump administration officials began re-writing the rule after President Trump issued an executive order in 2017 calling for offshore drilling controls — regarded as a “burden” by the fossil fuel industry — to be rolled back.

A broad coalition of environmental and Gulf groups sought the production of hundreds of documents the Interior Department had left out of the administrative record. These include records the Wall Street Journal reported showing that the Bureau of Safety and Enforcement (BSEE) — an Interior Department agency — failed to include a complete explanation for its determination of how and why to change the rule. The Journal further reported that the comments of BSEE staff members who objected to the rule’s rollback were deleted from decision-making memos. 

Specifically, BSEE Director Scott Angelle, who holds deep oil industry ties, overrode the safety guidance from BSEE engineers and ordered staff to delete safety concerns from rulemaking documents.

The following is a statement from Earthjustice Attorney Chris Eaton: 

“This ruling is a win for anyone who cares about government transparency. It rightly rejects the government’s attempt to hide the ball in its explanation of the rulemaking process, and its muzzling of its own experts who opposed these changes to this critical safety rule for offshore drilling.”

In the ruling, Federal Magistrate Judge Michael North wrote: “Defendants’ caginess leaves the Court with little choice but to order limited discovery into these matters.”

The ruling requires the agency to produce all the documents plaintiffs asked for in the motion.

Earthjustice, representing Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Friends of the Earth; Southern Environmental Law Center representing the North Carolina Coastal Federation and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League; Sierra Club; and Natural Resources Defense Council all joined in the motion.

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