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Biden Administration Reverses Trump-era Practice of Unlawful Safety Waivers

In a letter sent to Healthy Gulf and Democracy Forward, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement affirmed its commitment to enforcing offshore drilling safety measures from the 2016 Well Control Rule. In response to the Bureau’s intent to comply with safety rules, Healthy Gulf voluntarily dismissed its case.

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The Department of the Interior and Secretary David Bernhardt secretly and unlawfully amended critical safety requirements designed to prevent another Deepwater Horizon disaster. The amendments allow the offshore drilling industry to avoid procedures for testing a key safety mechanism, known as a “blowout preventer,” by complying with criteria that have never been available for public comment. In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 people and ravaged the Gulf Coast, the Department of the Interior promulgated new regulations— commonly referred to as the “Well Control Rule”— to establish standards for blowout preventer systems, a series of safety mechanisms used to prevent and seal an uncontrolled release of oil or gas from offshore wells.

The offshore drilling industry has generally opposed the Well Control Rule, and the Trump administration has responded by implementing a secret policy—the “Waiver Rule”—that systematically exempts the industry from the Well Control Rule’s requirements for testing blowout preventer systems. Between January 20, 2017 and March 22, 2018, the Trump Administration granted more than 960 waivers to offshore drillers, abusing a provision of the Well Control Rule that allowed departures from the Rule’s requirements only after careful, case-by-case analysis.

These safety rollbacks make America’s coasts vulnerable to another Deepwater Horizon disaster. Interior’s approach to granting these waivers—which appear to be issued at a rate of over one per day—substantially increases the chances of another catastrophic oil spill on the Gulf Coast and leaves the Gulf community in the dark about the agency’s offshore deregulatory practices. The illegal Waiver Rule is part of the administration’s ongoing prioritization of energy industry demands over common sense environmental and safety protections. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement—the agency responsible for the Waiver Rule—is led by Trump appointee Scott Angelle, a former oil company board member who lobbied for lifting the ban on drilling in the Gulf Coast after Deepwater Horizon.

Angelle also headed Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee, which a federal judge declared was illegally created after we sued Interior for stacking it with energy industry representatives.

This shadow operation violates federal law, so we sued Bernhardt and Interior on behalf of Healthy Gulf, which is committed to uniting and empowering people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf Region. Documents recently released reveal that Angelle sought to secretly delay safety protocols by issuing waivers without going through a public notice and comment rulemaking process. The BSEE Gulf of Mexico regional director cautioned Angelle “I do not believe the waiver direction is correct,” explaining that “[m]oving the implementation dates [for the safety protocols] by rule is what is really needed.”

Specifically, the Trump administration’s actions are illegal because:

  • The Waiver Rule, through which waivers are applied, has never been published in the Federal Register or circulated for public comment. The agency cannot evade the Administrative Procedure Act’s requirements merely by declining to publish a rule for comment.
  • NEPA requires an agency to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement or an Environmental Assessment to consider the effects of the proposed action. No such assessment was completed for the Waiver Rule.
April 2010

Deepwater Horizon explodes, killing 11 people and ravaging the Gulf Coast

April 2016

Interior implements new safety rules designed to prevent future disasters

September 2017

Trump appointee Scott Angelle seeks to secretly abandon safety protocols by issuing waivers without going through a public notice and comment rulemaking process

The BSEE Gulf of Mexico regional director cautioned Angelle “I do not believe the waiver direction is correct,” explaining that “[m]oving the implementation dates [for the safety protocols] by rule is what is really needed.”

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January 2017 - March 2018

The Trump administration grants more than 960 waivers to offshore drillers

This abuses a provision of the Well Control Rule that allowed departures from the Rule’s requirements only after careful, case-by-case analysis.

September 26, 2019

We filed suit with Healthy Gulf.

May 24, 2021

Biden Interior Department Affirms Commitment to Enforcement; Plaintiffs Drop Lawsuit.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced that it will enforce critical safety procedures from the 2016 Well Control Rule and only approve alternative measures that “provide a level of safety and environmental protection that equals or surpasses current BSEE requirements.” This runs counter to the Trump administration’s practice of unlawfully issuing waivers according to unpublished criteria that were not made available for public comment. In response to the Bureau’s intent to comply with safety rules, Healthy Gulf voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit.

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Aman George

Counsel & Legal Policy Director

Challenging unlawful actions and abuses of power related to the environment, healthcare, and good governance.

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Kristen Miller

Counsel

Litigating challenges to unlawful actions involving civil rights, health care, consumer protections, and more.

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Samara Spence

Senior Counsel

Litigating challenges to unlawful actions, abuses of power, and threats to democracy on behalf of those who are harmed.

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