Ten years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, producing the largest oil spill in U.S. history and devastating avian and marine ecosystems as well as local economies, the Trump administration is reneging on safeguards put in place in the disaster’s wake, even as the odds of a worse catastrophe grow larger.
Killing 11 workers and, in the ensuing 90-day oil spill, “an estimated one million birds and countless marine mammals,” the explosion prompted serious regulatory reforms from President Barack Obama, writes The Huffington Post.
“He vowed to hold responsible parties accountable and implement whatever regulatory reforms were needed to prevent similar disasters,” recalls HuffPost. “The Obama administration divided the Minerals Management Service, a scandal-plagued federal agency that both issued offshore leases and policed drilling operations, into three separate agencies to avoid conflicts of interest.”
That move “was meant to separate safety regulators from government officials who might be more incentivized by the money coming in from taxes on drilling,” The Guardian’s report explains.
Also occurring under Obama’s tenure: the creation of the Marine Well Containment Company, an independent non-profit equipped and “at the ready” to respond to future deepwater well incidents and spills. And in 2016, “the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) finalized major offshore drilling safety regulations.”
But on the tenth anniversary of the explosion, little of that preparedness has survived Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda for the U.S. Industry is being pushed “to develop in new, riskier and more expensive areas,” Elizabeth Johnson Klein, the associate deputy secretary for the Interior Department under Obama, told HuffPost. “When companies are forced to cut costs, safety is typically one of the first things to take a back seat.”
Trump’s agenda to date has included weakening notification and certification rules and appointing former Halliburton lobbyist David Bernhardt to the position of Interior Secretary (Halliburton was the oilfield services giant that “agreed to a US$1.1-billion settlement for its role in the 2010 blowout,” notes HuffPost). Other greatest hits include “scrapping a requirement that offshore equipment be designed to withstand the most extreme weather and pressure conditions” and “overhaul[ing] the Well Control Rule, a monitoring regulation that…required additional inspection and maintenance of blowout preventers, devices designed to automatically seal a well and stop an uncontrolled release of oil and gas.”
Those changes have gone along with a Trump-driven tendency for officials to be “accommodating to the corporations they regulate,” reports The Guardian. Internal emails suggest that Scott Angelle, current bureau director of BSEE and a long-time supporter of the oil industry, has “refused to document” the concerns of staffers who “have disagreed with the rollbacks to drilling safety rules,” and has been quoted as saying his organization is making a transition “from creating hardships to creating partnerships”.
With the removal of safeguards, the Trump administration has “plowed ahead with offshore leasing,” writes HuffPost. In March, “as the deadly coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation,” 78 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico were offered up at auction to oil and gas producers. The purchase price for one 400,000-acre stretch: About US$93 million—“the smallest total for an offshore auction since 2016.”
University of Maryland marine scientist Donald Boesch, who in 2011 helped produce a bipartisan commission report into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, said such actions and events show the Trump administration has failed to learn the “essential” lesson from the disaster: namely, that “industry and government should be putting their greatest energies into preventing operational accidents, blowouts, and releases.” Then, just as today, said Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University, the U.S. government should not have “a financial stake in the success” of marine fossil fuel projects.
“Until we get our policies and legal architecture in line with the risks we are running, we are going to be very vulnerable,” he warned.
Trump-era pressuring to drill ever farther offshore could also lead to a disaster even worse than Deepwater Horizon, Florida State University oceanographer professor Ian MacDonald told HuffPost. “The worst case scenario for a future oil spill is not loss of exploration well drilling, but the catastrophic destruction of a production platform in deep water,” he said. The ocean floor is known to be unstable and susceptible to earthquakes, he cautioned, and “if a mudflow were to destroy one without warning, we could get a discharge of oil that could continue for years.”