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Trump administration to overhaul safety-monitoring rules for offshore drilling

Smoke billows from controlled oil burns near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. (Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg News)

The Trump administration is overhauling how federal officials monitor safety procedures on offshore drilling operations, revising a pair of rules enacted in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill on the grounds that they are overly burdensome on industry.

On Friday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) will publish new regulations for the production-safety-systems rule, which addresses devices used during offshore oil production.

The agency has also drafted changes to another set of regulations, called the well-control rule, which aims to prevent the kind of blowout that killed 11 workers.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, released more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It killed thousands of dolphins, sea turtles and other marine animals, exposed hundreds of cleanup workers and other gulf residents to toxic chemicals and prompted a six-month shutdown of all deepwater drilling in the gulf.

Even before President Trump’s election, many oil and gas officials said that the Obama administration had overreached on rules designed to forestall a future catastrophe. Those rules inhibited offshore production, they argued, and Trump administration officials reiterated that Thursday.

“It’s time for a paradigm shift” in regulations on the outer continental shelf, which accounts for 1 in every 6 barrels of domestic oil, BSEE Director Scott Angelle said in a statement. “There was an assumption made previously that only more rules would increase safety, but ultimately it is not an either/or proposition. We can actually increase domestic energy production and increase safety and environmental protection.”

Industry leaders applauded the move.

"Safety experts in the offshore oil and gas industry now have the opportunity to comment on this important regulation," Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said in a statement. "This 'second bite at the apple' provides an opportunity for further dialogue, discussion and debate to assure the Nation's offshore energy resources are developed safely and expeditiously."

But Michael Bromwich, who served as the BSEE’s first director, said Thursday that because both rules did not take full effect until last year, “the argument that the regulatory burden needs to be lifted . . . is not credible.”

While the BSEE released a copy of the production-safety rule Thursday, it has not made the well-control proposal public. A copy of the latter rule, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was obtained separately by The Washington Post.

In March, Trump issued an executive order instructing agencies to reduce undue burdens on domestic energy production. Angelle, who was installed by the president in May as head of the BSEE, cited that order as one of the reasons the agency decided to change the production safety rule.

Neither proposal amounts to a wholesale reversal of existing regulations, according to experts, but instead each minimizes some of industry’s obligations and changes compliance terms in several instances to language favored by drillers.

The proposed rule unveiled Thursday, for example, eliminates a requirement that safety and pollution prevention equipment be inspected by independent auditors certified by the BSEE. A bipartisan presidential commission established after the disaster had recommended such inspections.

Instead, under new regulations, oil companies will use industry-set “recommended practices” for ensuring that safety equipment works — as was done before the Deepwater Horizon incident.

Recommended practices by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute “are simply that — they make recommendations but don’t require anything,” said Nancy Leveson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as a senior adviser to the presidential commission.

“The documents are filled with ‘should’ instead of ‘must,’ ” she noted in an email.

The publication of the proposed changes kicks off a 30-day comment period.

The BSEE’s proposed revisions also include several other changes that the industry has long sought. For example, while it does not change the level of downhole pressure the agency requires operators to maintain in a given well to avoid an accident, it removes the word “safe” in describing that balance. In the case of pressure tests, which failed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, those no longer have to “show” that a well is in balance. Instead, they should “indicate” that. Some changes are more substantive. The existing well-control rule requires that companies complete any investigation and failure analysis within 120 days of an equipment failure. The proposed rule, by contrast, calls for this process to start within 120 days and provides no specific end date.

The agency declined to comment on the proposed revisions to the well-control rule, saying it is still under review at the Office of Management and Budget, BSEE spokesman Greg Julian said in an email.

In May, a coalition of seven industry groups submitted a 53-page letter, obtained by The Post, suggesting technical changes to the well-control rule. Four months later, the BSEE gathered industry and environmental groups in Houston, the heart of the U.S. oil and gas sector, to solicit ways of making that rule less burdensome. Among the provisions targeted was the one about 120-day investigations.

The industry wanted requirements for real-time data from offshore operations to be pulled back. Lois Epstein, Arctic program director at the Wilderness Society, described the administration’s ultimate changes as modest.

Bromwich questioned the administration’s emphasis on promoting offshore energy exploration in fashioning regulations; the previous administration had changed the Interior Department’s structure specifically to separate drilling oversight from the agency collecting revenue from such activities and eliminate any perceived conflicts of interest.

“The rhetoric seems to be moving away from being a tough-minded but fair regulator,” he said, “and instead being a cheerleader for industry.”

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