Interior Department Weakens Rules Issued in the Wake of the BP Oil Spill

Last week, the Department of the Interior Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced new Well Control Rules for offshore drilling. The new rules regulate well control and blowout preventer system systems. The original well control rules were adopted in response to recommendations from investigators after the Deepwater Horizon disaster leaked about 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. The spill killed numerous birds and other animals, as well as damaging the fishing industry in the area. The well control rule promulgated in 2016 consolidated other rules that were promulgated after the disaster in 2010. In announcing the rule change, Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt stated, “[t]oday’s final rule puts safety first, both public and environmental safety, in a common sense way. Incorporating the best available science, best practices and technological innovations of the past decade, the rule eliminates unnecessary regulatory burdens while maintaining safety and environmental protection offshore.”

Many of the provisions of the original rule do actually remain the same (about 80%), but the changes and additions are controversial. The new rule reduces the frequency of tests to equipment like blowout protectors. Additionally, third party inspectors will now be allowed to inspect equipment rather than independent auditors licensed by the government. The number of connection points to the blowout preventer will be reduced in order to avoid potential failure points. A lot of mandatory language has been changed to suggested language. Safety tests no longer have to show that a well is in balance; it merely needs to indicate it.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) applauds the rule change and says that it will increase the safety of those who work on offshore drilling platforms. The IPAA felt that the 2016 rule was too prescriptive and bound companies to a single approach. The organization feels that the new rules will allow more flexibility to respond based on changes in technology. Industry insiders felt that the old rules did not allow for differences in geographic location, temperature, geological conditions, and pressure.

The Center for Biological Diversity¬† believes that the new regulations make another catastrophic disaster more likely and puts profits before safety. Earthjustice Oceans Attorney Chris Eaton views the new regulations as a “hand out to oil companies.” Other environmental groups also expressed their displeasure with the new regulations.


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