If you don’t pay attention to news from Louisiana, or keep an eye on ongoing offshore drilling matters, you may have missed it happening entirely. Oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico — 10 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River — for nearly 15 years, and it’s yet to stop.
Environmental advocacy group Oceana issued a report Thursday that spells out the chances of these sort of ongoing disasters will only increase if the Trump administration’s offshore drilling expansion and regulation rollback go into effect.
“Sometimes we hear industry claims that offshore drilling is safer than ever,” said Diane Haskins, who is leading Oceana’s effort on the subject. “In cases like Taylor Energy — our case in point — when there’s drilling, there’s spilling, and they can’t even stop that leak. If it’s so safe, why hasn’t that spill been stopped?”
When Hurricane Ivan rolled through the Gulf Coast in 2004, it wrecked Taylor Energy’s offshore oil platform. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the hurricane damaged 25 connected wells, which federal regulations require to be permanently plugged — and the offshore lease abandoned — within a year.
The company has yet to clear away the sediment and fix the problem, which turns 15 years old on Sept. 15.
There’s also the matter of one of the most famous offshore oil drilling disasters in memory — the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 people, and put around 172 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico before the well could be capped — along with 1.84 million gallons of dispersant used to break up oil on the sea surface — 87 days later.
The Deepwater Horizon spill, the ninth anniversary of which was April 20, resulted at one point with more than a third of Gulf waters closed to fishing, according to a report by the Gulf Sea Grant and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.
“The Deepwater Horizon anniversary is a painful reminder about what’s at stake under President Trump’s proposals to radically expand offshore drilling, and roll back the few safeguards that are still in place,” Hoskins said.
Oceana’s report, by Hoskins and Madeline Voitier, states there are “alarming unaddressed deficiencies,” reform efforts have failed to improve offshore drilling safety and industry oversight continues to be lax. The report notes there’s been a fire or explosion at an offshore facility every three days from 2007 to 2017 and “numerous safety violations.” It also states oil-spill cleanup technology has generally unchanged for 30 years and the money to clean up those spills is inadequate to get the job done.
The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement governs offshore drilling operations.
“BSEE estimates the proposed safety rollbacks will save the offshore oil and gas industry about $824 million over 10 years,” according to the report. “Focusing on industry cost-savings, however, disregards the safety and environmental benefits the rule was intended to provide in the first place.
“Moreover, BP’s estimated losses due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster amounted to over $60 billion, or more than 70 times the estimated 10-year savings from decreasing safety standards.”
There are a lot of specifics to these regulations, and with so many trees it’s hard to see the forest. But this regulatory maneuver fits in line with the Trump administration’s actions toward fossil fuels and environmental protection in other areas — policy couched in statements concentrating mostly on industry cost-savings, without taking into account adverse impacts to human health and safety, broader environmental health, and negative impacts to other industries that could occur with this kind of significant deregulation.
“In terms of President Trump, he certainly still has the opportunity to do the right thing on offshore drilling — the process isn’t over,” Hoskins said. “We’re heading into the final public comment period on the offshore drilling plan, so that’s the final opportunity for the public to make their voices heard, and the president still has the opportunity to stand with the people.
“It shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. When you look at the opposition, every single East Coast governor is opposed to drilling off their coast, so President Trump has the opportunity to do the right think here and we certainly want him to do that.”
The Interior Department is supposed to, at some point, release a new draft of its plan for proposed offshore leases, and when that happens, a 90-day public comment period opens.
From what’s been announced, though, the rule rollbacks specifically target regulations put into effect in 2016 because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. As it is, this would remove a requirement that third-parties certify equipment, and instead allow companies themselves to handle the job, among a number of other measures meant to make the process safer and cleaner, with proper oversight.
“We’re calling on President Trump to halt efforts to expand drilling to any new areas, we’re calling on the president to abandon attempts to roll back some of the few safeguards that are currently on the books,” Hoskins said. “Right now, BSEE could seek transformative changes to the industry’s safety culture. Congress could act to increase financial penalties and require more-accurate oil spill reporting.”
BSEE Director Scott Angelle, whose lengthy time in public service in Louisiana included more than seven years as director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, has a long history of advocating for the fossil fuels industry and offshore drilling.
In a statement made at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Conference in October, Angelle said in essence that the administration’s efforts will end up being a win-win for everyone.
“Let us be the generation that inherited energy dependence and transformed it into energy dominance,” Angelle said. “When President Trump issued his executive order, titled, ‘Implementing an America First Offshore Energy Strategy,’ he changed America’s direction offshore.”
Angelle later added, “I am convinced that more is achieved when all offshore stakeholders — including taxpayers, regulators, industry, safety advocates and environmental organizations — put our heads together and strive for safe and secure energy dominance. And, as we all know, we can only achieve these goals through safe operations that prioritize environmental sustainability.”