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Trump Administration Proposes Scaling Back Macondo-Era Well Control Rule

Landmark offshore drilling safety rules put in place following the tragic Macondo well blowout in 2010 may be rolled back by the Trump administration.

The Well Control Rule, enacted in 2016 and overseen by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), focused on blowout preventer (BOP) systems. BOPs are valve assemblies that fit at the top of a well during drilling and are considered the failsafe, as they are designed to close to prevent oil spills in the event of a blowout.

According to BSEE, a proposed rewrite could save offshore operators an estimated $946 million over 10 years without compromising safety.

“We believe that by focusing on safety without lessening safety or environmental safeguards, we have produced the kind of public policy that is good for America, is good for energy security and is good for economic security,” said BSEE Director Scott Angelle.

The proposed revisions also align with some recommendations made following the Macondo disaster, he said.

“We can confidently say that not a single one of the changes that we made have ignored or contradicted a single recommendation that any one of these 14 external organizations made through those 26 reports.”

Rule changes would impact only 18% percent of the 342 provisions, according to Angelle. “That means 82% of the rule remains intact. We are just dealing with the 18% we considered overly burdensome.”

The proposal comes about one year after President Trump signed an executive order directing Interior to, among other things, review the Well Control Rule, which is considered the centerpiece of the Obama administration's response to Macondo.
The rules followed extensive investigations of the deepwater Macondo tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, which determined that the BOP attached to the BP plc-operated well failed. The incident killed 11 men and seriously injured 17 others after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was destroyed.

However, the rules package was overly restrictive, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API).

The revisions “will move us forward on safety, help the government better regulate risks and better protect workers and the environment,” said API spokesperson Eric Milito. “As with all regulations, it is important that offshore safety regulations -- including BSEE’s Well Control Rule -- constantly evolve and are revised based upon new insights and developments in the offshore exploration and development field.

“Instead of locking in regulatory provisions that may actually increase risk in operations, it is critical that revisions are made that enhance the regulatory framework to ensure updated, modern, and safe technologies, best practices, and operations.”

In Florida, however, there was bipartisan opposition to revising the rules.

“This administration wants to turn a blind eye to history just to help their friends in the oil industry,” said Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, who is running for re-election to his Senate seat in November. “We can’t let that happen. These rules were put in place to prevent another massive oil spill off our coasts. We can't allow this new administration to take us backwards in time and, once again, expose Florida’s beautiful beaches and tourism-based economy to such an unnecessary risk.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running to unseat Nelson, said he was “firmly against these proposed changes.” Noting he appreciated Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to remove Florida from plans to expand offshore drilling, the well control issue is separate, and “I remain concerned about the potential impact these changes could have on Florida’s environment.”

Said GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan, "Lifting what the Interior Department calls burdensome regulations for oil companies is hardly worth the risk of destroying Florida's economy and environment.”

Marine protection organization Oceana said revising the rules is the wrong approach. Other groups also warned of the potential consequences.

“The Trump administration’s commitment to unlearning the lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster knows no bounds,” said senior attorney Sierra Weaver of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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