Last month, the Trump administration finalized plans to roll back key offshore drilling safeguards put in place in the wake of the BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. While its proposals to also expand offshore drilling to the Atlantic, Pacific and off Florida’s Gulf Coast have been temporarily placed on hold, relaxation of the drilling safety rules raises concerns about the well-being of the ocean and coastal communities not only in the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling continues in deeper waters, but eventually in places that have been closed to leasing for over 30 years.
Charleston and communities like it on the South Carolina coast are particularly vulnerable to any weakening of safety rules. A recent analysis by The Post and Courier indicates that a Deepwater Horizon-like spill in the Gulf Stream would devastate the state’s fishery and vibrant, billion-dollar tourism industry. A spill closer to land would clog and soak salt marshes and Lowcountry beaches with oil.
Today, the ocean is a major economic driver for our nation. Highly productive waters fuel the seafood industry and serve as hubs for tourists from all over the world. Healthy ocean ecosystems and clean coasts underpin booming tourism, fishing, and recreation industries. When properly managed and protected, our oceans serve as the lifeblood of communities such as Charleston.
Following the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, we served as members of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill and Offshore Drilling – a bipartisan presidential commission that investigated the root causes of the 2010 blowout. From our time on the commission, we understand how deficiencies in offshore safety procedures and oversight can make a bad situation a catastrophe. We spent six months examining the Gulf disaster and developed recommendations that were intended to guide safety standards. Our work was to identify failure points in emergency response and offshore operations, so another such disaster could be avoided to the greatest extent possible. It took six years to implement a revised Well Control Rule that was a positive step toward reducing the risk associated with offshore drilling. The weakening of this Well Control Rule by the Trump administration disregards extensive research and consultation that went into shaping the rule, in favor of more reliance on industry standards and decisions.
Revisions included stripping real-time onshore monitoring requirements and removing a key layer of oversight that reduced undue industry influence over the third-party entities that certify safe operations and maintenance. Equally concerning are the drastic reductions in the frequency, duration and oversight of blowout preventer testing. The blowout preventer is a standard technology across the industry — it’s the last line of defense in preventing an oil or gas explosion in an underwater well. A failed blowout preventer on the Macondo well was a contributing factor leading the BP Deepwater Horizon rig to explode. The disaster claimed the lives of 11 people, gushed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed critical habitat throughout the Gulf. It took engineers 87 days to cap the blowout. The economic damages of this explosion ballooned in the months following, and BP spent over $14 billion on immediate cleanup operations alone.
According to government estimates, changes to the Well Control Rule will save the offshore oil and gas industry $824 million over 10 years. This may sound like a lot, but it is less than 0.2% of the wellhead value of the hydrocarbons being produced. On the flip side, the risks of a spill skyrocket with weak regulations and insufficient oversight. BP’s estimated losses from Deepwater Horizon were at least $60 billion, which is 70 times the estimated 10-year savings from decreasing safety standards. Putting the focus on industry cost-savings, instead of the people and our environment, undermines what this rule was intended to protect.
Weakening offshore safety and expanding drilling is simply self-destructive public policy. Our oceans and coasts are vital to our economy, health and quality of life. Leaders such as U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, Gov. Henry McMaster, and cities like Charleston and Beaufort, have led the fight against offshore drilling and seismic testing. We must preserve our coasts and economies and cannot afford to expand offshore drilling to any new areas.
Donald Boesch and Frances Beinecke both served on the National Presidential Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and currently serve on the Leadership Council of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.