Saturday is the nine-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, we take a look at how offshore drilling safety has changed since then, and what the government has done to prevent disasters in the future.
For this week’s coastal news roundup, WWNO’s Tegan Wendland gets the answers from Loyola law professor, Rob Verchick.
Q: After the BP spill the federal government created an agency to oversee offshore drilling and safety called the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. What was that agency tasked with, and how successful has it been?
BSEE, as it's called, was an invention of the Obama administration - the idea was to create an agency that was specifically for safety and environmental concerns. So the design of BSEE was a really good idea. But under the leadership of Scott Angelle, in the Trump administration, the mission has actually really changed and that's been the unfortunate part of it. You can design a good organizational structure but you have to have good leadership. And under Scott Angelle’s leadership at BSEE the mission is essentially changed to reducing what they call “unnecessary regulatory burdens,” and that's not my phrase, you can see that actually right on the website, when you go to the BSEE website.
Q: The Trump administration has rolled back certain safety and enforcement standards with the argument that they create these undue regulatory burdens, essentially making it tougher to do business and restricting the country's energy independence. So how is that approach playing out?
Well it's interesting. So they've rolled back protections under the Obama administration, including protections about monitoring blowout preventers in deep water, of all things. When the Trump administration rolled those back in its accompanying documentation they weren't able to really provide any evidence showing that the industries were being overburdened or that there actually was going to be any increase in oil development. And it's possible that's a legal vulnerability in those rules because the Trump administration in general has not been very good at providing evidentiary support for its rules and it's lost in court 40 different times because of it in environmental cases.
Q: Some might argue that this approach isn't necessarily spurring more demand for offshore leases. We’ve seen, in recently sales, the demand for the leases hasn't really increased.
Well I think that's right, because in fact we have a lot of fuel being produced in the interior of the United States - with natural gas, for instance, in terrestrial areas and this is just really expensive oil to produce. What we do know, and this is BSEE’s own figures, is that there has been an uptick in safety violations on after inspections on platforms particularly among smaller oil and gas companies workplace violations have really skyrocketed recently.
Q: So now the Trump administration is trying to open up East Coast waters to drilling and is facing a surprising amount of pushback from Republican governors. Even if we've seen attempts to increase offshore safety rolled back under this administration - do you think that the Deepwater Horizon disaster might have been scary enough to make these local lawmakers push back against building new rigs in their backyards?
I think that's right. I mean, the reason that so many Republican governors on the East Coast are against this expansion in deep water is because they don't want to ruin their economies. I mean they've got a multibillion dollar industry in tourism and property values and so on. And there's even a court in Alaska that has put the brakes on some of Trump's expansion based on what the court believes was a violation of law. And I would say that even that comes in the shadow right of this understanding about how dangerous drilling in deep water for instance in the Arctic Circle really is.
Q: So what have we really learned since the BP spill? Are we safer?
Well what we've learned I think is that we need good organization in our agencies and that's part of what BSEE was supposed to provide. But we also need good leadership. In terms of whether it's safer in the Gulf - I don't know that anybody knows for sure. There is no way to remove risk. But what you can do is say that we want the industry to be as safe as possible while allowing it to make reasonable profits. And it was that way in the Obama administration. There's no evidence to suggest that it’s not able to make the money that it needs. It's just a larger economic factors like cheaper oil and gas from the interior United States, I think that is that is causing concern.
Rob Verchick worked for the EPA under the Obama Administration.
Support for the Coastal Desk Comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana.