Two months after proposing to open a massive area of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas companies for offshore drilling, the Trump administration has halted a study that aimed to make drilling platforms safer.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced Thursday that the Interior Department suspended a $580,000 study to update and enhance the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s oil and gas inspection program. “The stop work order, dated Dec. 7, says that within 90 days [it] will either be lifted and work on the study can resume, or the contract to perform the study will be terminated.”
A bureau spokesman, Gregory Julian, said the study was suspended because it might not be needed. “Simply put, we paused the study because it appeared to be duplicative of ongoing work,” he said Thursday afternoon.
Julian said the bureau needs time to ensure there would be no overlap. But the National Academies researchers met for the first time only recently, and Julian offered no explanation for why the bureau couldn’t work with them as they moved forward.
It was the second time in four months that the administration has blocked a National Academies study. In August, a study of health effects related to mountaintop removal to extract coal in West Virginia was abruptly curtailed “largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation,” Interior said.
President Trump has proposed $1.6 billion in funding cuts for the department next year, and Secretary Ryan Zinke aims to eliminate 4,000 staff positions. Interior funds hundreds of studies undertaken by universities and scientific commissions, and it was unclear Thursday whether other studies have been suspended or eliminated. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Scientists on the commission that had been conducting the coal mining study expressed hope that a review of their work would soon end and the study be allowed to continue. As with the suspension and review of the offshore drilling study, they were not told when the review started and was to be completed. The coal mining study is still on hold, the National Academies said.
The National Academies are nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to solve complex problems and inform policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine. The study to update the offshore oil and gas operations inspection program was commissioned last year and partially funded in May.
Conservationist groups voiced their opposition on Twitter.
The Trump administration made history in October by proposing to make nearly 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico available for companies wanting to buy federal oil and gas leases, the largest offering in the United States.
According to Interior, the first lease sales off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are scheduled for March. They would include “all available unleased areas on the Gulf’s Outer Continental Shelf,” a statement said.
The Gulf of Mexico was the site of arguably the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill of 215 million gallons of crude that fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida.