Biden Revived Rules Designed to Prevent Another Deepwater Horizon Disaster

The Department of Interior announced on Tuesday that it had reinstated Obama-era safety rules for offshore drilling that were created in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that killed 11 people and fouled the Gulf of Mexico.

The Trump administration weakened those safety measures, arguing that they were a burden to the oil and gas industry. The new regulation, which was finalized on Tuesday and will take effect in October, revives most of the 2016 requirements for the use and testing of safety equipment on offshore rigs.

Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, and Kevin Sligh, the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE, said in a joint statement that the new rules were critical for ensuring the safety of offshore operations.

“Finalizing this rule will enable BSEE to continue to put the lives and livelihoods of workers first, as well as the protection of our waters and marine habitats,” Mr. Sligh said.

Jackie Savitz, the chief policy officer for Oceana, an ocean conservation nonprofit group, called the rule “a big step in getting us back on track” but argued offshore oil and gas will never be free of risk.

“There is no way we can do enough to prevent an oil spill, it is an inherently risky business and it’s not a matter of if, but when we will have another one. So a big part of prevention has to be to stop selling new leases,” Ms. Savitz said

Republicans and the oil and gas industry are widely expected to challenge the rule, which includes the real-time monitoring of drilling operations and the certification of emergency devices by third parties. The industry has argued that the Biden administration’s safety measures are “arbitrary” and will create economic hardships for oil and gas companies.

The rules come as the Biden administration navigates a complicated landscape of oil and gas regulation. As a candidate, President Biden pledged to stop new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters. But legal requirements have compelled him to move ahead with leasing, including plans to drill in 73 million acres of water in the Gulf of Mexico and the approval of the controversial $8 billion Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. At the same time, the administration has approved three major offshore wind projects, moved to bolster wind and solar development on public lands and increased the royalty rates paid by companies that drill on public lands.

On Tuesday the Interior Department also announced it has approved the fourth commercial scale offshore wind farm since the start of the Biden administration. Known as the Revolution Wind project, it would be located off the coast of Rhode Island with a projected capacity of just over 700 megawatts. It follows previously-announced projects off the coasts of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey as well as another approved project off Rhode Island.

The new safety measures call for increased strength requirements for blowout preventers, the set of valves that are supposed to seal off an oil well in an emergency to stop the uncontrolled flow of oil and gas. During the Deepwater Horizon spill, a supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer failed after a section of drill pipe buckled.

More than three million barrels of oil gushed into the waters off the coast of Louisiana, killing an estimated one million seabirds. The accident led to the largest environmental settlement in the nation’s history, with the oil giant BP agreeing to pay $18.7 billion in civil penalties and damages to the federal government and affected states.

In 2020, a bipartisan commission that was created to investigate the Deepwater Horizon accident was critical of the way the Trump administration had weakened the rules governing offshore drilling. The commission said that the United States lacked sufficient safety measures and was vulnerable to another disaster.

The new rules require that third-party contractors working on offshore facilities be accredited by the federal safety bureau; that any failure data on blowout preventers be reported to the government and that investigations of any system failures start within 90 days of an incident.

“These improvements are necessary to ensure offshore operations, especially those related to well integrity and blowout prevention, are based on the best available, sound science,” Ms. Haaland said.

She also suggested that new safety rules could also be designed for offshore wind farms, saying “as our nation transitions to a clean energy economy, we will continue strengthening and modernizing offshore energy standards and oversight.”

The Interior Department has estimated that complying with the new regulations will cost the industry less than $2.4 million over 10 years.

That amount is disputed by the oil and gas industry. In a letter objecting to the new rules, the American Petroleum Institute said its own study concluded that the cost would be $200 million over 10 years. The rules would “impose unreasonable and economically infeasible burdens on energy development efforts without a measurable safety benefit,” the trade group wrote.

Environmental groups have said that implementation of the safety rules is long overdue, though many have also argued that the regulations don’t go far enough.

Lisa Friedman reports on federal climate and environmental policy from Washington. She has broken multiple stories about the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal climate change regulations and limit the use of science in policymaking. More about Lisa Friedman

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