Washington D.C.— Today, Democracy Forward, on behalf of Healthy Gulf, filed suit against the Department of the Interior and Secretary David Bernhardt for secretly and unlawfully amending 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. Interior’s approach to granting these waivers—which appear to be issued at a rate of at least 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.
Documents recently released reveal that Scott Angelle, Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, sought to secretly delay safety protocols by issuing waivers without going through a public notice and comment rulemaking process. 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.”
“The Trump administration is putting the Gulf Coast at risk of another Deepwater Horizon disaster by unlawfully allowing oil companies to dodge safety protections,” said Democracy Forward Legal Director Javier Guzman. “Once again, this president is putting industry interests over the health and safety of our coastal communities and workers.”
“The people of the Gulf Coast do not want another BP blowout in their waters. Weakening protections for blowout preventer systems in offshore drilling is a slap in the face to Gulf workers, fishers, and coastal residents and businesses,” said Cynthia Sarthou, Executive Director of Healthy Gulf. “These laws were written to protect us from another catastrophic drilling disaster like BP. These waivers were illegally issued without public notice or an opportunity for public comment. That’s why we are taking this to court.”
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.
This shadow operation violates federal law for the following reasons:
- 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.
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, former oil company board member who lobbied for lifting the ban on drilling in the Gulf Coast after Deepwater Horizon. Recently, Angelle led the Department of Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee, which a federal court ruled was unlawfully created, prohibiting the agency from using any of the Committee’s recommendations.
Today’s lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Founded in 1994, Healthy Gulf, formerly Gulf Restoration Network, is a nonprofit focused on empowering people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico region.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.