NEW ORLEANS – The Biden administration on Tuesday finalized tighter rules for complex devices meant to prevent catastrophic blowouts on offshore oil and gas drilling rigs, reversing some Trump administration policies and returning to a more stringent regulatory stance adopted after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Failure of blowout preventer equipment was a major cause of the April 2010 disaster that killed 11 workers and resulted in an estimated 130 million gallons of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.
Tougher offshore safety rules had been adopted in 2016 but were revised in 2019 under then-President Donald Trump. The oil industry welcomed that move, but it was followed by an ongoing lawsuit filed by environmental organizations.
The new rules from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement address conditions and well pressures under which the automatic well control devices operate. They require that remotely operated underwater vehicles be capable of opening and closing key components of blowout preventers. They also include mandates and time limits for investigating failures and providing data on blowouts to regulators.
It's a revision but not a complete reversal of the Trump-era changes. For instance, BSEE is maintaining an expansion of the interval between required blowout preventer inspections from 14 to 21 days.
Miyoko Sakashita, of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the Trump administration revisions, said the new rules would likely resolve the lawsuit, which has been delayed several times since President Joe Biden took office.
“Importantly, the rule requires that those testing and reporting on blowout preventers be certified and meet federal standards. It also requires that blow-out preventer failure reports be sent to BSEE,” Sakashita said in an email exchange.
But, she said, the changes don't go far enough.
“This new rule at least puts an end to industry self-policing, but that’s too low of a bar,” Sakashita said. "We can all see from this summer’s heat waves, wildfires, and severe storms that we’re in a climate crisis. Biden needs to declare a climate emergency and end offshore drilling.”
An official with the American Petroleum Institute criticized the latest regulatory changes.
“Regulatory clarity is critical for ensuring compliance and establishing safe operations, but this rule continues the rampant politicization of the rulemaking process and represents another policy swing from administration to administration, resulting in a policy that fails to meaningfully improve the safety of workers or protect the environment,” Holly Hopkins, an API vice president, said in an emailed statement.