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Lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon: Apparently, none

Trump administration rollback of offshore oil safety rules shows how quickly an environmental disaster can be forgotten.

In 2010, a blowout on an offshore drilling rig working off the coast of Louisiana caused one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history. Eleven platform workers were killed in the initial explosion, and 5 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, the worst petroleum spill ever in U.S. waters. Huge numbers of native flora and fauna down to the zooplankton were killed, valued coastal habitat destroyed and shoreline turned into a blackened mess. Cleanup efforts took years. Investigators discovered all kinds of violations by those involved from defective cement in the well to inadequate safety systems and a pattern of negligence. Rig owner BP, operator Transocean and contractor Halliburton all took their lumps. Between fines, lawsuits, cleanup costs and damages paid out through a trust fund, the disaster cost BP more than $42 billion.

Given the enormity of that calamity — not to mention the diminished role of offshore drilling in the age of modern fracking and the global need to diminish, not expand, fossil fuel consumption or face worsening climate change — it’s unthinkable that anyone would even be talking about loosening safety restrictions on offshore drilling, let alone adopting rules to do just that. But in the Trump administration, the environmentally unthinkable is plenty thinkable given its propensity to give the oil and gas industry whatever it likes. On Thursday, the former oil industry lobbyist who now runs the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that controversial plans to roll back Obama-era rules intended to prevent another Deepwater Horizon are now officially on the books.

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That unfortunate choice may have caught many Americans off-guard given the distraction of other worrisome events like the growing constitutional crisis brewing between President Donald Trump, who believes his administration doesn’t ever have to answer to Congress, and those members, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives, who believe it does. The squabble over Attorney General William Barr, whether he lied to Congress or should be allowed to ignore a House committee that would dare to have staff ask questions of him, seems to be just part of a broader White House strategy to avoid accountability from an allegedly co-equal branch of government.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the Wall Street Journal that offshore drilling plans could be on hold because of legal challenges

In contrast, some U.S. coastal communities — including Maryland’s own Ocean City — have been rejoicing over the reprieve given them last month when the Trump administration said it was delaying its push to open up more waters, including those off the East Coast, to offshore drilling until at least after the 2020 election. Given the vocal objections of Republican governors, Maryland’s Larry Hogan among them, and a recent legal setback (a federal judge in Alaska having weeks earlier blocked a restart of drilling rights sales suspended by the Obama administration), this wasn’t a big surprise. But it’s not clear whether the legal ruling that the restart can’t be done by executive order alone will hold. There’s no indication President Trump has changed his mind on the topic, only that the matter has been shelved for 18 months.

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Lest anyone believe that President Trump was getting cautious about offshore drilling, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s announcement made clear it isn’t. Among the rollbacks now in effect is a reduction in how much testing must be done to so-called blowout preventers, assemblies of valves capping underwater wells that can be difficult to access routinely but are the last line of defense in disasters like the Deepwater Horizon’s. Whatever savings such weakened rules might represent (more than $800 million, according to the Interior Department), they are piddling compared to the long-term economic and health cost of another oil rig explosion. How could we have forgotten that so soon?

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