Trump administration sued over offshore safety rules rollback

Ten environmental groups on Tuesday sued the Trump administration over recent changes in the Obama-era offshore safety rules put in place in 2016, in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Illustration; Image DOI / Twitter

“[The 2016 Well Control Rule] required drilling operators to implement many of the drilling practices and technology upgrades the Deepwater Horizon panels had determined were necessary to improve safety and avoid a similar disaster. [The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)] obtained substantial public and industry input, and considered a weighty amount of evidence and scientific studies in evaluating and determining the necessity of each provision in the rule for ensuring safety; in fact, it took BSEE nearly six years to finalize this rule given the substantial amount of information before the agency. BSEE ultimately concluded that the rule would reduce the risks of worker deaths and oil spills, and would provide a net cost benefit to both society and to the oil and gas industry,” the environmental groups said in the complaint to the district court for the Northern District of California.

As previously reported, the U.S. Interior Department last month said it was rolling back offshore well control rules in what it said was a push to reduce regulatory burden. The oil and gas industry groups have welcomed the rollback, while the environmental groups feel the move is a “hand out” to oil companies and will jeopardize offshore safety.

These rollbacks are a step back to the pre-Deepwater Horizon days when the offshore oil industry largely policed itself to disastrous effect. This attempt to roll the dice with offshore safety not only puts workers and our coasts at risk, but violates the law,” said Chris Eaton, Earthjustice attorney.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) early in May released “the final improved Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control regulations.” BSEE has said that the final revised rule leaves 274 out of the Obama-era 342 original Well Control Rule provisions – approximately 80 percent – unchanged. Sixty-eight provisions were identified as appropriate for revision, and 33 provisions were added to improve operations on the OCS, BSEE said at the time.

“BSEE failed in issuing the Partial Repeal final rule to provide any rational justification for the revisions, to acknowledge or explain why it has disregarded its previous factual findings from the 2016 Well Control Rule, or to meaningfully respond to concerns raised by Plaintiffs in comments on the proposed Partial Repeal.”

In their lawsuit on Tuesday, the environment groups alleged that the recent Well Control rule changes by BSEE would be “putting workers’ lives, coastal communities, and the environment at substantial risk,” and would increase the likelihood of offshore drilling accidents and oil spills that harm the health of these ecosystems and species. The plaintiffs have sought a court order declaring the changes to the well control rule unlawful, accusing BSEE of retreating from its own 2016 Well Control Rule without “providing any good reason or rational basis” to do so.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs singled out as defendants the BSEE, and Scott Angelle, who is sued in an official capacity as Director of BSEE; The Department of Interior, and David Bernhardt, the recently appointed Secretary of the Interior.

The plaintiffs have alleged that the BSEE May move weakened or substantially rescinded standards on safe drilling practices, containment equipment requirements, blowout preventer shearing requirements, blowout preventer testing and reliability standards, equipment failure, near-miss reporting, and well cementing standards, “giving industry more leeway to police itself,” and with, the lawsuit reads, sole justification to eliminate “unnecessary burdens on stakeholders.”

“BSEE failed in issuing the Partial Repeal final rule to provide any rational justification for the revisions, to acknowledge or explain why it has disregarded its previous factual findings from the 2016 Well Control Rule, or to meaningfully respond to concerns raised by Plaintiffs in comments on the proposed Partial Repeal,” the lawsuit reads.

“BSEE had previously found in the 2016 Well Control Rule that each of the provisions now being repealed or revised in the Partial Repeal is an important component of a drilling safety system. BSEE did not explain how repealing these components is consistent with those previous factual findings,” the plaintiffs said, adding:” BSEE asserted in the Partial Repeal that each repeal in the final rule is necessary to reduce undue burdens on industry. E.g., id. at 21,910. BSEE provided no factual support or analysis to support these assertions.”

In addition, relaxing safety measures when drilling operations are increasing in new high-pressure, ultra-deepwater environments presents heightened and uncertain risks that BSEE failed to consider, the plaintiffs said.

The plaintiffs further said: “The revisions to the safe drilling margin standards, real-time monitoring requirements, surface blowout preventer requirements for floating facilities, and blowout preventer testing interval that BSEE adopted in the Partial Repeal final rule are not logical outgrowths of the vague statements and requests for suggestions in the proposed Partial Repeal. BSEE’s inaccurate assumptions regarding the risks of blowouts, losses of well control, and oil spills caused it to irrationally underestimate the environmental impacts of the Partial Repeal.”

In their lawsuit, the environmental organizations have asked that the court, among other things, declares BSEE’s final Well Control Rule as “arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and not in accordance with law in violation of the APA, NEPA, and OCSLA,”  and to vacate the BSEE’s Partial Repeal final rule.

The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of the following organizations: Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, North Carolina Coastal Federation, and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

Offshore Energy Today Staff

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