The Interior Department has given offshore oil drillers nearly 1,700 exemptions to Obama-era safety rules put in place after BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, effectively gutting parts of the regulation before the Trump administration officially rolls them back.
Those waivers were awarded in the first 20 months after the Well Control Rule took effect, according to data provided to POLITICO under a Freedom of Information Act request. The most common waivers were those that allowed the companies to sidestep tighter rules for blowout preventers — the device that failed to seal off BP’s well after it erupted in 2010, killing 10 workers and spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over five months.
“Are these rules becoming meaningless under the Trump administration?” said Lois Epstein, a civil engineer who focuses on drilling issues for The Wilderness Society. “These rules have been put in place for important reasons. They’ve gone through public comment period. It sounds like the regulators have decided that they are going to move toward waivers rather than looking at whether the rule could be made to work as intended.”
An Interior Department spokesperson said the waivers — also known as “departures,” “variances” and “alternative compliance” — are allowed under the Well Control Rule, but the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement does not track requests and is not required to make them public since they may include company’s trade secrets.
“In approving the permits, the BSEE engineers verify that any proposed alternate procedures or equipment provide a level of safety and environmental protection that equals or exceeds current BSEE regulations,” agency spokesperson Lisa Lawrence said.
The waivers mostly focused on 53 provisions of the
final Obama-era rule that took effect at the end of July 2016 and which the industry had complained were the most burdensome. The Trump administration has begun to ease those provisions under its own rulemaking that began in May 2018. Those revisions are currently under review at the Office of Management and Budget.
BSEE, which is in charge of offshore rig safety standards, issued the waivers between August 1, 2016, just as the Obama administration implemented its rule, and March 21, 2018, though an industry lawyer told POLITICO that the number started to rise months after the rule became official as more companies applied for waivers.
The data provided by BSEE showed the number of times the bureau fulfilled companies’ requests for waivers to individual provisions of the rule, but not the dates they were granted. BSEE said it approved the first request on August 15, 2016, but did not disclose how many the department has granted per month, which companies had received them or why the projects had qualified for waivers.
BSEE’s tight grip on information about the waivers is a major concern, said Diane Hoskins, campaign director for environmental group Oceana.
Right now, the public is in the dark about when and why these departures are being granted, and no set of criteria exists for whether a departure can be granted,” Hoskins said. “Given the industry’s documented deficient safety culture, the status quo creates opportunities for side-stepping rules that are vital to protecting human and environmental health and safety.“
The most common waivers were those that allowed the companies to sidestep tighter rules for blowout preventers — the device that failed to seal off BP’s well after it erupted in 2010, killing 10 workers and spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over five months. | Chris Graythen/Getty Images
The Wilderness Society’s Epstein agreed that the agency needs to provide more data about the waivers granted.
“Do they just get the application and just approve it?” she said. “Do they distinguish between good operators and bad operators? Have they denied any requests? Some of [the provisions] may be very major, and we don’t know how long they’ve taken in processing these applications, or whether they just take the word of the company that everything is equal or better.”
But Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, said the Obama rule was flawed and needed fixing.
“It is important that it is revised based upon new insights and developments in the offshore exploration and development field to enhance the regulatory framework to ensure updated, modern, and safe technologies, best practices, and operations,” he said.
enacted by the Obama administration had taken years to formulate, and were aimed at tightening safety standards that had been on the books for decades before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. Energy lawyers said the waiver requests began rolling in a few months after the Obama rule took effect.
“It’s a rule that came out that was highly technical,” said Larry Nettles, a partner at law firm Vinson & Elkins, who specializes in environmental and natural resources issues. “Some folks had identified they would need variances. They poured in more and more [requests] over time.”
And he said that once it became apparent BSEE was granting the waivers, more drillers began seeking them.
“There might have been some follow-the-leader that happened here,” Nettles added. “After a few of the large actors started doing this, other companies said, ‘Hey, maybe we should, too.’”
BP, Chevron, Hess, Anadarko Petroleum and other companies that had applied for roughly 1,300 Gulf drilling permits
during the 20-month period covered by BSEE data would not say whether they had sought waivers to the safety standards. The bureau has not yet provided data on the number of waivers given after March 2018.
More than a third of the 1,679 waivers granted during those 20 months
allowed companies to deviate from regulations concerning tests that companies must perform on blowout preventers. The provisions had stipulated how often a blowout preventer should be tested, how long each test should last, and the parts that should be inspected.
Brian Salerno, who served as BSEE’s director during the Obama administration, said waiver requests would normally be handled by bureau employees at the agency’s Gulf of Mexico district offices. The rule was in effect for only the final six months of Obama’s presidency,
and the bureau would have been unlikely to grant many waivers on a such a new rule.
“We only had a few months of the [rule] being in effect before it was pencils down for the Obama team,” Salerno told POLITICO. “I do not recall if there were any departures granted for [blowout preventer] testing during that period. Typically, they would be managed at the field level, although given the newness of the regulations, I would think there would have been some communication to D.C. if any were granted.”
BSEE Director Scott Angelle — a former Louisiana lawmaker and member of pipeline company Sunoco Logistics’ board of
directors — has said the Trump administration’s upcoming rule revisions would streamline offshore drilling regulations without weakening safety standards.
“Nothing in our proposed rule will alter any elements of other rules promulgated since the Deepwater Horizon event, including the drilling safety rule and the safety and environmental management system rules,” Angelle said in a video
address at the rollout of the proposed revisions. “Our process was laser focused, seeking to rid and eliminate only burdensome regulations while ensuring safe and environmentally friendly development.”
Those revisions would eliminate requirements that drillers provide real-time well monitoring data to regulators and reduce the frequency of mandatory blowout preventer tests, among other things. But even before those changes are finalized, BSEE’s waivers are allowing companies to skip complying with them anyway.