Louisiana environmental group sues over rollback of offshore drilling rules created after BP spill [NOLA Media Group, New Orleans]

Jul. 28–A Louisiana-based conservation group has filed a lawsuit in federal court in California challenging a rollback of offshore drilling regulations by President Donald Trump’s administration that relaxed the requirements on blowout preventers and real-time monitoring.

Healthy Gulf, formerly known as the Gulf Restoration Network, is one of 10 environmental groups that filed suit last month against Scott Angelle — a former lieutenant governor of Louisiana and a leading gubernatorial candidate in 2015 — in his current role as director of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of California on June 11. The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is the Sierra Club, based in Oakland, California.

The federal bureau was formed 19 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster in 2010 to oversee safety and environmental protection in offshore energy development. The lawsuit alleges it is now weakening measures deemed necessary after the disaster to reduce the risk of workers’ deaths and oil spills. The changes ease new regulations on some of the practices that led to the spill.

The bureau did not provide adequate reasons for relaxing its rules, said Cyn Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf.

“Without any additional research, the agency is going back on what it said before,” she said. “We just don’t feel like they’ve come up with a sufficient justification for the rollback.”

In 2017, Trump issued an executive order directing the bureau to reexamine the so-called Well Control Rule, which was imposed in the wake of the 2010 spill — the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence.

The order directed the bureau to find ways to encourage energy exploration and production on the Outer Continental Shelf — an area that extends more than 200 miles offshore. The order also called for reducing unnecessary regulation while ensuring that any energy exploration is safe and environmentally responsible.

The rule changes, announced in May, went into effect this month.

Among the changes are the removal of certain requirements for real-time monitoring of offshore operations by onshore engineers; an extension of the date by which blowout preventers must comply with certain requirements; and an avenue for companies to more easily obtain waivers from meeting the minimum “safe drilling margin,” a measure designed to reduce the risk of sudden changes in well pressure that could cause a blowout.

The bureau estimates that the changes will save the industry $152 million in compliance costs annually over 10 years, according to the final rule published in the Federal Register.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobbying group, applauded the changes for providing “a regulatory framework that promotes updated, modern and safe technologies, industry best practices and operations.”

But Donald Boesch, a marine science professor who sat on the national Oil Spill Commission, said he found the revisions short on analysis. The commission, created by former President Barack Obama after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, recommended the reforms now being rolled back.

Boesch said he was most concerned by the changes that weaken real-time monitoring requirements and allow waivers from the safe drilling margin.

Investigations into the spill found that real-time monitoring of rig operations by onshore engineers would have helped offshore workers to identify irregularities in well conditions.

The 2016 safe drilling rule directed operators to maintain a specific margin to ensure that drilling mud exerts enough pressure on the walls of a well to prevent oil or gas from flowing out of the formation, but not so much that it causes the rock formation to fracture.

The rule established a safe drilling margin as one-half pound per gallon between the weight of drilling mud and the amount of pressure a formation can withstand before fracturing.

The Oil Spill Commission found that maintaining a safe drilling margin was fundamental to safety, Boesch said. The commission’s analysis of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe found that operators on the well “were getting to a point where that margin was carelessly close,” Boesch said.

Federal records indicate that it’s not uncommon for operators to drill sections of well below the current standard of 0.5 pounds per gallon. Of the 305 offshore wells drilled between Aug. 1, 2016, and March 22, 2018, 32 were drilled below the safe drilling margin, according to the records.

In public comments on the rule change, some industry officials encouraged the bureau to throw out the safe drilling margin, calling it “arbitrary.”

The bureau opted not to get rid of the guideline, calling the current threshold “an appropriate safe drilling margin for normal drilling scenarios,” according to the bureau. However, the rules were changed to make it easier for oil companies to get waivers that excuse them from the threshold.

Boesch said the thing that “left a burning impression” on him was the fact that the rule changes were explicitly focused on increasing offshore production, which he said is not the bureau’s job.

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Minerals Management Service, which then oversaw both regulating and marketing offshore drilling, was split to separate its sometimes conflicting missions. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management took on the role of offshore development, while the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement took over the task of regulation.

“The logic and reasons given (by the bureau) for the rollbacks were all about efficiency and encouraging production, and that’s not the mission of that agency,” Boesch said.


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