The Trump Administration has allowed 1700 “exceptions” to the “Well Control Rule” that the Obama Administration put in place in 2016 to improve drilling safety as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Today, in a hearing on Capitol Hill, the Interior Department defended these actions saying that the exceptions were granted only if the requester demonstrated that the exception to the rule was equally protective.  But documents that POLITICO obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and made public two weeks ago paint a different picture.  POLITICO found that the most common waivers were those that allowed drilling companies variances from the tighter rules for blowout preventers, which is the part that failed in the Deepwater Horizon Spill, allowing oil to flow into the Gulf for months.  POLITICO also found evidence of numerous troubling exceptions to the rule, including:

  • The most dangerous were 18 waivers exempting companies from a rule prohibiting rig workers from welding while oil and gas continued to flow through a rig.
  • 192 waivers related to how companies test the cylindrical metal casing that prevents a drilled hole from caving in.
  • 156 waivers related to the amount of cement companies must use in well casings to keep them stable, and how much pressure the cement casings needed to be able to withstand.
  • Dozens of other waivers were of a requirement that mandates advance notice by companies to a Department of Interior district or regional manager before using equipment or safety procedures not described in the Well Control Rule.
  • 119 waivers lifted the requirement that operators “stop operations as soon as practicable” to evaluate wells that had gone more than 30 days without well casings safety tests.

Diane Hoskins of the environmental group Oceana expressed concern about the lack of transparency around the exceptions being granted, saying that “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 also argued that by issuing so many variances, the Interior Department was giving oil and gas companies too much leeway, saying “There are systemic failures in offshore drilling safety oversight and digging into the data from [DOI] raises even more questions.”   The Trump Administration is seeking to roll back the Well Control Rule and began to loosen the enforcement of it after taking office, and according to POLITICO, once industry saw the number of exceptions being granted the number began to grow rapidly.

Why This Matters:  “Are these rules becoming meaningless under the Trump administration?” asked Lois Epstein, a civil engineer who focuses on drilling issues for The Wilderness Society. It certainly seems that way. 1,700 requests for anything is a huge number — particularly when those requests must be reviewed by an engineer and determined to be safe before being granted.  It is hard to imagine that these waiver requests were given the “hard look” by the Interior Department that they deserved.  And this is further evidence of why the Trump Administration’s plan to open the entire U.S. offshore ocean territory for oil and gas drilling is a really bad idea and a disaster waiting to happen.  And why even many Republicans from coastal states like Florida and South Carolina oppose the President on this issue.

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