Trump’s Offshore Oil Drilling Plans Ignore Lessons Of BP Deepwater Horizon

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Skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon spill, May 29, 2010.
NOAA , CC BY

Donald Boesch, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

The Trump Administration is proposing to ease regulations that were adopted to make offshore oil and gas drilling operations safer after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. This event was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Eleven workers died in the explosion and sinking of the oil rig, and more than 4 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists have estimated that the spill caused more than US$17 billion in damages to natural resources.

I served on the bipartisan National Commission that investigated the causes of this epic blowout. We spent six months assessing what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon and the effectiveness of the spill response, conducting our own investigations and hearing testimony from dozens of expert witnesses.

Our panel concluded that the immediate cause of the blowout was a series of identifiable mistakes by BP, the company drilling the well; Halliburton, which cemented the well; and Transocean, the drill ship operator. We wrote that these mistakes revealed “such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.” The root causes for these mistakes included regulatory failures.

Now, however, the Trump administration wants to increase domestic production by “reducing the regulatory burden on industry.” In my view, such a shift will put workers and the environment at risk, and ignores the painful lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The administration has just proposed opening virtually all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, which makes it all the more urgent to assess whether it is prepared to regulate this industry effectively.

Oil spill commissioners Dr. Donald Boesch, center, and Frances Ulmer, former Alaska lieutenant governor, on left, visit the Louisiana Gulf Coast in 2010 to see impacts of the BP spill. Donald Boesch

Separating regulation and promotion

During our commission’s review of the BP spill, I visited the Gulf office of the Minerals Management Service in September 2010. This Interior Department agency was responsible for “expeditious and orderly development of offshore resources,” including protection of human safety and the environment.

The most prominent feature in the windowless conference room was a large chart that showed revenue growth from oil and gas leasing and production in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a point of pride for MMS officials that their agency was the nation’s second-largest generator of revenue, exceeded only by the Internal Revenue Service.

We ultimately concluded that an inherent conflict existed within MMS between pressures to increase production and maximize revenues on one hand, and the agency’s safety and environmental protection functions on the other. In our report, we observed that MMS regulations were “inadequate to address the risks of deepwater drilling,” and that the agency had ceded control over many crucial aspects of drilling operations to industry.

In response, we recommended creating a new independent agency with enforcement authority within Interior to oversee all aspects of offshore drilling safety, and the structural and operational integrity of all offshore energy production facilities. Then-Secretary Ken Salazar completed the separation of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement from MMS in October 2011.

Oil flooding from the ruptured well during the BP spill, June 3, 2010.

Officials at this new agency reviewed multiple investigations and studies of the BP spill and offshore drilling safety issues, including several by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. They also consulted extensively with the industry to develop a revised a Safety and Environmental Management System and other regulations.

In April 2016, BSEE issued a new well control rule that required standards for design operation and testing of blowout preventers, real-time monitoring and safe drilling pressure margins. Prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the oil industry had effectively blocked adoption of such regulations for years.

About-face under Trump

President Trump’s March 28, 2017 executive order instructing agencies to reduce undue burdens on domestic energy production signaled a change of course. The American Petroleum Institute and other industry organizations have lobbied hard to rescind or modify the new offshore drilling regulations, calling them impractical and burdensome.

In April 2017, Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, appointed Louisiana politician Scott Angelle to lead BSEE. Unlike his predecessors – two retired Coast Guard admirals – Angelle lacks any experience in maritime safety. In July 2010 as interim Lieutenant Governor, Angelle organized a rally in Lafayette, Louisiana, against the Obama administration’s moratorium on deepwater drilling operations after the BP spill, leading chants of “Lift the ban!”

Even now, Angelle asserts there was no evidence of systemic problems in offshore drilling regulation at the time of the spill. This view contradicts not only our commission’s findings, but also reviews by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and a joint investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Interior Department.

Oiled Kemp’s Ridley turtle captured June 1, 2010, during the BP spill. The turtle was cleaned, provided veterinary care and taken to the Audubon Aquarium. NOAA, CC BY

Fewer inspections and looser oversight

On December 28, 2017, BSEE formally proposed changes in production safety systems. As evidenced by multiple references within these proposed rules, they generally rely on standards developed by the American Petroleum Institute rather than government requirements.

One change would eliminate BSEE certification of third-party inspectors for critical equipment, such as blowout preventers. The Chemical Safety Board’s investigation of the BP spill found that the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer had not been tested and was miswired. It recommended that BSEE should certify third-party inspectors for such critical equipment.

Another proposal would relax requirements for onshore remote monitoring of drilling. While serving on the presidential commission in 2010, I visited Shell’s operation in New Orleans that remotely monitored the company’s offshore drilling activities. This site operated on a 24-7 basis, ever ready to provide assistance, but not all companies met this standard. BP’s counterpart operation in Houston was used only for daily meetings prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Consequently, its drillers offshore urgently struggled to get assistance prior to the blowout via cellphones.

On December 7, 2017 BSEE ordered the National Academies to stop work on a study that the agency had commissioned on improving its inspection program. This was the most recent in a series of studies, and was to include recommendations on the appropriate role of independent third parties and remote monitoring.

Minor savings, major risk

BSEE estimates that its proposals to change production safety rules could save the industry at least $228 million in compliance costs over 10 years. This is a modest sum considering that offshore oil production has averaged more than 500 million barrels yearly over the past decade. Even with oil prices around $60 per barrel, this means oil companies are earning more than $30 billion annually. Industry decisions about offshore production are driven by fluctuations in the price of crude oil and booming production of onshore shale oil, not by the costs of safety regulations.

BSEE’s projected savings are also trivial compared to the $60 billion in costs that BP has incurred because of its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Since then explosions, deaths, injuries and leaks in the oil industry have continued to occur mainly from production facilities. On-the-job fatalities are higher in oil and gas extraction than any other U.S. industry.

The ConversationSome aspects of the Trump administration’s proposed regulatory changes might achieve greater effectiveness and efficiency in safety procedures. But it is not at all clear that what Angelle describes as a “paradigm shift” will maintain “a high bar for safety and environmental sustainability,” as he claims. Instead, it looks more like a shift back to the old days of over-relying on industry practices and preferences.

Donald Boesch, Professor of Marine Science, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

 

 

The Best Legal Arguments Against Trump’s Immigration Ban

Steven Mulroy,
University of Memphis

January 31, 2017

Is President Trump’s recent executive order on immigrants and refugees legal?

It’s a surprisingly tricky question.

The order arguably violates both a federal statute and one or more sections of the Constitution – depending on whether the immigrant is already in the U.S. In the end, opponents’ best hope for undoing the order might rest on the separation of church and state.

Trump’s order bars the entry of any refugee for 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely. It also bans citizens of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen from entering the U.S. for 90 days. This order potentially affects more than 20,000 refugees, along with thousands of students nationwide. Depending on how it is enforced, it could also impact as many as hundreds of thousands of green card holders, or immigrants with permanent residency.

Many opponents have challenged the order in court.

A U.S. District Court judge in Brooklyn, New York, issued a ruling that halted the enforcement of Trump’s executive order the day after he signed it. Judges in at least four other states followed suit.

Trump’s supporters defend the order’s legality based on a federal immigration statute passed in 1952 that allows the president to suspend the U.S. entry of “any class of aliens.” But, as a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer and a law professor, I believe there are at least four possible arguments challenging the legality of the order.

Anti-discrimination statute

There is, critically, another federal statute that outlaws discriminating against a person regarding issuing visas based on the person’s “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence,” which Trump’s order clearly does. This second statute was passed in 1965 and is more specific than the 1952 statute. What’s more, courts have enforced this anti-discrimination ban strictly. This is the strongest legal argument against President Trump’s order.

But Congress can amend or repeal the 1965 statute, as it can any law. A Republican-controlled Congress might do that, although concerns raised by some GOP lawmakers may make that unlikely.

Due process and equal protection

The recent court orders halting enforcement of the Trump order relied on a legal argument that it violated due process or equal protection under the Constitution. Due process means that people get procedural safeguards–like advance notice, a hearing before a neutral decision-maker and a chance to tell their side of the story–before the government takes away their liberty. Equal protection means the government must treat people equally, and can’t discriminate on the basis of race, alien status, nationality, and other irrelevant factors.

As the Supreme Court has said, even immigrants who are not citizens or green card holders have due process and equal protection rights, if – and only if – they are physically here in the U.S. That’s why the recent court orders on due process and equal protection help only individuals who were in the States at the time the court ruled.

Given the rushed, chaotic manner in which the recent order was drafted and enforced, with no set chance for affected individuals to plead their case, maybe there are some valid due process arguments against the ban. But presumably, those can be fixed by slowing down and letting people have their say. Once that’s done, the remaining issue is whether the executive order violates equal protection by intentionally discriminating against Muslims.

Trump denies the order is a “Muslim ban,” even though he called for exactly that during the campaign, and each of the seven countries subject to the ban is majority Muslim. In explaining why those seven countries were chosen, the order itself cites the Obama-era law stating that persons who in recent years have visited one of these seven terrorism-prone nations would not be eligible under a “visa waiver” program. Similarly, says Trump, the defining characteristic here is terrorist danger, not religion. That’s why only seven of more than 40 majority Muslim countries are affected. (Note that the Obama-era rule isn’t based on nationality, but rather on whether someone of any nationality visited the danger zone since 2011 – a criterion not outlawed by the 1965 statute.)

One problem with Trump’s argument is that the order also seems to prioritize admitting Christian refugees. It does this by saying that once the 120-day ban on all refugees expires, priority goes to those of “a minority religion in the individual’s country.”

Supporters can rightly argue this “minority religion” language is neutral. It never mentions Muslims or Christians. But, as that neutral language interacts with the country-specific ban targeting seven Muslim countries, the two can’t help but disproportionately help Christians. Indeed, just days before signing the order, Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network he intended to prioritize Christian refugees.

Separation of church and state

That brings us to the final legal argument against the president’s order. By picking favorites among religions, it violates the separation of church and state under the Constitution’s Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Though Establishment Clause law is often murky, one clear point is that the government can’t favor one religious denomination over another.

This may be the most important of the constitutional theories involved in this case because it may have the broadest scope.

The due process and equal protection arguments only help persons who are already in the United States. Theoretically, a court ruling on those arguments might invalidate the order only as it applies to such persons. But if the order violates the Establishment Clause by making a statement favoring Christianity, a court could strike it down entirely.

The Conversation

Steven Mulroy, Law Professor in Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Election Law, University of Memphis

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.