Trump Administration Puts Offshore Oil Rig Workers’ Lives at Risk

May 30, 2019 | 11:28 am
Photo: mliu92/Flickr
Jacob Carter
Research Director

The Trump administration is failing to consider scientific evidence in rolling back a rule intended to keep lives of offshore oil rig workers safe. These are the very workers that the Trump administration claims to care so much about. But evidence suggest that this rollback on worker safety has been a long time coming.

First, a study was halted

The first step to rolling back oil rig workers’ safety was the Trump administration canceling a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study intended to investigate how to improve safety inspections of offshore oil rigs. While it is odd for any administration to cancel a study led by the country’s most prestigious scientific institution, it also was odd that this study was halted because the agency it was intended for asked for the study to be conducted…then made a U-turn and asked for the study to be halted.

In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and released 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 workers and the spill caused an estimated $8.8 billion in environmental damages. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered the most damaging in U.S. history.

A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sharply criticized the Interior Department’s offshore regulating body, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), for conducting inspections that are still based on pre-Deepwater Horizon standards. The report stated, “The use of outdated investigative policies and procedures is a long-standing deficiency.” In response to this report, the BSEE requested a study by NASEM to determine the best inspection practices to help avoid another catastrophic accident like Deepwater Horizon. The study was requested in 2016, but progress on the study was immediately halted in 2017. No reason was offered as to why the study was canceled.

Then, the waivers came

The Obama administration implemented safety requirements for offshore oil rigs in 2016. In September 2018, the Trump administration released a proposal for rolling back many of those safety requirements (subscription required). Many assumed that the administration would be waiting for public comment and review processes before the rollback could take place, but this did not happen.

In 2019, Politico revealed that the Trump administration had issued nearly 1,700 waivers on the offshore safety rules to states. These waivers were largely to bypass rules related to blowout preventers – the last line of defense that ensures an uncontrolled oil spill doesn’t occur.

The finale – A rollback issued

And the final rollback of safety measures has been issued by the Trump administration, putting more lives and our environment at risk of another catastrophe like Deepwater Horizon. The Trump administration says that they can achieve the same level of safety for workers and our environment with the revisions. How does that even make sense? That’s like saying that I’ll achieve the same quality of brownies if I leave the sugar and chocolate out. It’s just never going to be true. Additionally, it’s worth noting that BSEE didn’t even conduct a risk analysis on the revised rule.

So why ignore scientific evidence, cancel an investigation by the most prestigious scientific institution in our country on how to better safety standards, issue waivers quietly, and roll back protections for workers? You may have guessed it already – money.

The Interior Department estimates that the rollback will save industry more than $1.5 billion over 10 years. According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “Most of the savings from the final rule—$919 million of it—is attributed to requiring less frequent testing of safety systems known as blowout preventers, which are the last line of defense against runaway wells.” Blowout preventers – the safety mechanism widely regarded to be the culprit of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The majority of comments submitted were in opposition to the proposed rule and many of its major proposals that rollback offshore oil rig workers’ safety. Yet, the administration didn’t listen to the public.

It’s ironic, don’t you think?

The Deepwater Horizon spill cost BP an estimated $67 billion in losses from the disaster. Yet, the Trump administration is willing to put the safety, the lives, of offshore oil rig workers on the line for $1.5 billion? I’m not a mathematician, but it seems like it’s cheaper in the long run to implement the safety practices that don’t result in $67 billion in losses. But, like I said, I’m not a mathematician. Also, making sure people don’t die is pretty good, too.

These are lives that the Trump administration claims to care about dearly. Yet, we have seen this administration plan to decimate protections for these workers since day one. There has been a coordinated plan that makes it clear – the Trump administration never cared one bit about the safety of these workers. It seems that the administration has their eyes on something else. Let’s just hope more lives aren’t lost on this irony.