Trump's offshore oil drilling plans ignore the lessons of BP Deepwater Horizon
Posted by admin on 5th January 2018
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The Trump Administration is proposing to ease regulations that were adopted to make offshore oil and gas drilling operations safer after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. This event was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Eleven workers died in the explosion and sinking of the oil rig, and more than 4 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists have estimated that the spill caused more than US$17 billion in damages to natural resources.

I served on the bipartisan National Commission that investigated the causes of this epic blowout. We spent six months assessing what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon and the effectiveness of the spill response, conducting our own investigations and hearing testimony from dozens of expert witnesses.

Our panel concluded that the immediate cause of the blowout was a series of identifiable mistakes by BP, the company drilling the well; Halliburton, which cemented the well; and Transocean, the drill ship operator. We wrote that these mistakes revealed “such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.” The root causes for these mistakes included regulatory failures.

Now, however, the Trump administration wants to increase domestic production by “reducing the regulatory burden on industry.” In my view, such a shift will put workers and the environment at risk, and ignores the painful lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The administration has just proposed opening virtually all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, which makes it all the more urgent to assess whether it is prepared to regulate this industry effectively.

Oil spill commissioners Dr. Donald Boesch, center, and Frances Ulmer, former Alaska lieutenant governor, on left, visit the Louisiana Gulf Coast in 2010 to see impacts of the BP spill.
Donald Boesch

Separating regulation and promotion

During our commission’s review of the BP spill, I visited the Gulf office of the Minerals Management Service in September 2010. This Interior Department agency was responsible for “expeditious and orderly development of offshore resources,” including protection of human safety and the environment.

The most prominent feature in the windowless conference room was a large chart that showed revenue growth from oil and gas leasing and production in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a point of pride for MMS officials that their agency was the nation’s second-largest generator of revenue, exceeded only by the Internal Revenue Service.

We ultimately concluded that an inherent conflict existed within MMS between pressures to increase production and maximize revenues on one hand, and the agency’s safety and environmental protection functions on the other. In our report, we observed that MMS regulations were “inadequate to address the risks of deepwater drilling,” and that the agency had ceded control over many crucial aspects of drilling operations to industry.

In response, we recommended creating a new independent agency with enforcement authority within Interior to oversee all aspects of offshore drilling safety, and the structural and operational integrity of all offshore energy production facilities. Then-Secretary Ken Salazar completed the separation of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement from MMS in October 2011.