Trump’s Interior Department Is Ill-Prepared to Deal with the Next Big Spill

An American flag lies in a slick of oil that washed ashore from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 4, 2010, in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Today, the Trump administration unveiled its vision to radically expand where it allows offshore oil and gas drilling. If implemented as outlined, this move would ensure that spilled oil washes ashore on more American beaches on both coasts. In addition to expanding drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration’s draft plan disregards sound science and broad public opposition by proposing to allow oil and gas leasing in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from Washington to Florida, as well as in dangerous environments in the Arctic Ocean.

Importantly, this plan comes while the administration aggressively works to overturn existing safety standards and environmental protections that guard against oil spills and other impacts of energy development. These safety rollbacks come at a time when regulators are finding many offshore drillers unprepared to address disasters. If the Trump administration is successful, offshore drilling will be much riskier—and there will be more of it.

Today’s announcement—and the accompanying regulatory rollback effort—demonstrates a willful disregard for the hard-earned lessons that led the government to implement existing environmental and safety standards in the first place. Royal Dutch Shell’s disastrous attempts at oil exploration in the Arctic and BP’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should stand as stark, recent reminders of what can happen if these important energy regulations are shelved.

For the sixth year in a row, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s onshore and offshore energy programs have made the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) high-risk list due to their vulnerability to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. Instead of taking steps to address these issues, however, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s first substantial report since taking office reveals a comprehensive strategy to roll back safety, consumer, and environmental protections. It reads as a road map to hand over control to the very industry that his department is supposed to regulate when operating on public lands and waters.

Through Secretary Zinke’s simultaneous regulatory rollbacks and fire sale of public lands and waters, the Interior Department will be even more ill-equipped to deal with the environmental and public safety fallout of inevitable future spills, leaks, and blowouts from oil and gas drilling. Below is a summary of the lessons that the nation may be doomed to repeat if the Trump administration reverses key safety and environmental protections.

Shell’s Arctic drilling debacle

Throughout 2012, Shell was involved in a series of major mishaps in oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean, ranging from temporarily losing control of its rig to failing repeatedly to obtain U.S. Coast Guard certification for its key piece of oil spill response equipment. Shell’s drilling fiasco exposed significant shortcomings in industry control and planning for spill prevention, containment, and response within the uniquely challenging environs of Arctic waters. In response, the GAO issued a report raising concerns and recommending action, and the Interior Department conducted a review of Shell’s Arctic activities.

  • Solution and reform: Set Arctic safety standards. The Interior Department implemented strong and proven operational requirements to ensure that exploratory drilling activities in the Arctic are conducted in a safe and an environmentally responsible manner.
  • Zinke’s rollback: Gut Arctic safety standards. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is eliminating key containment requirements and technological standards for arctic drilling and indicates additional, yet unspecified revisions or deletions to the standards.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster

The BP oil spill in 2010 off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 workers, injured 17 more, and pumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The failure of a key piece of equipment at the wellhead—the blowout preventer—led directly to the immense environmental damage resulting from the massive spill. Oil continued to flow from the seafloor for 87 days, resulting in the worst oil disaster in U.S. history. The catastrophic event revealed and underscored the Interior Department’s inadequate oversight and protections for offshore drilling. The GAO issued a report in 2012 detailing ongoing concerns and recommending actions.

  • Solutions and reforms:
    • Develop a well control and blowout preventer rule. The Interior Department underwent a federal rule-making process, finalizing regulations that reduced the risk of blowouts during offshore drilling that could result in death, serious injury, or extensive environmental harm. The rule also implemented measures to improve equipment reliability focusing on blowout prevention, well design, real-time monitoring, and subsea containment.
    • Develop a production safety systems-revisions rule. The Interior Department updated production safety regulations from the 1980’s that had allowed industry to establish practices for ensuring safety equipment worked. The rule required independent auditors inspect pollution prevention and safety equipment.

Sale of oil and gas leases near parks

In the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency, the Bush administration attempted to auction off thousands of acres of oil and gas leases near national parks and wilderness study areas in Utah. The action generated public outcry—with major backlash in Utah—and emphasized the need to seek more stakeholder input early in the process to minimize controversy while ensuring that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) adheres to its multiple use mandate.

  • Solution and reform: Introduce master leasing plans. The Interior Department developed plans that put BLM land managers—rather than industry representatives—in charge of deciding which areas of public lands are best-suited for oil and gas leasing and which areas should be protected for uses such as recreation; hunting and fishing; and conservation.
  • Zinke’s rollback: Replace land-use planning process. The BLM is scrapping master leasing plans and thereby removing transparency and public input from early stages of energy siting on public lands. It is reversing the direction of the BLM’s stakeholder engagement back to an era of distrust and controversy that dogged the Bush administration.

Numerous local fracking bans

Towns, cities, and counties in 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed measures to curb fracking. This growing number of fracking bans over the past decade indicates a lack of public confidence in outdated protections. The technological complexities of drilling—or fracking—far surpass well-drilling regulations that had been on the books for 30 or more years. The GAO outlined health and safety requirements and challenges that federal and state agencies face in regulating fracking and other unconventional methods of oil and gas development.

  • Solution and reform: Outline fracking standards. The Interior Department updated requirements for wellbore integrity, wastewater disposal, and public disclosure of chemicals.
  • Zinke’s rollback: Rescind fracking standards. On December 29, 2017, the BLM issued a final rule to roll back protections for communities and drinking water as well as to reduce public and federal understanding of what chemicals are used in fracking and to revert to outdated regulations.

Wasted natural gas from drilling on public lands

The oil and gas industry leaks and burns—or vents and flares—natural gas when drilling. When done on federal public lands, this waste costs taxpayers $330 million in lost revenue annually and pumps hundreds of thousands of tons of the potent greenhouse gas methane and other harmful compounds into the atmosphere every year. The Interior Department’s inspector general and the GAO recommended the Department Interior address these problems in a 2010 inspector general report, a 2010 GAO report, and a 2016 GAO report.

  • Solutions and reforms:
    • Establish methane and waste prevention rule. The Interior Department finalized a rule to curb waste of natural gas supplies, reduce harmful emissions, and provide taxpayers with a fair return on public resources.
    • Update onshore orders 3, 4, and 5. The Interior Department updated these orders to ensure proper measurement and tracking of oil and gas extraction from public lands.
  • Zinke’s rollbacks:
    • Delay and dismantle the methane rule. The Trump administration delayed the January 2017 implementation of this wildly popular rule even though Congress and the courts have upheld it.
    • Indefinitely delay and review The administration is slow walking the implementation of the updated onshore orders and simultaneously reassessing them. These delays and probable rollbacks increase the risk of theft and loss of publicly owned oil and gas.

Orphaned oil and gas sites in national wildlife refuges

The 450 nonfederal oil and gas sites that remain on federal land pose health and safety risks to staff and visitors and will cost taxpayers $20 million to clean up. These burdens, as well as more than 250 active oil and gas wells in the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), compromise the system’s core conservation mission.

  • Solution and reform: Revise the NWRS’ nonfederal oil and gas rule. The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) updated a 50-year-old regulation to ensure that oil and gas operations minimize impacts on wildlife refuges and simplify compliance.
  • Zinke’s rollback: Secretary Zinke’s recent report asserted that the USFWS and National Park Service (NPS) “have the ability to reduce potential burdens on domestic energy production, development, or transmission.” This assertion indicates that the Interior Department could roll back the updated regulations to minimize impacts on wildlife refuges.

National parks inadequately protected from drilling

Inadequate protection from drilling risks the NPS’ 534 active oil and gas wells across 12 park system units. NPS standards that were set in 1978 to protect park resources while private entities drill for oil and gas beneath some national parks have become insufficient as drilling technologies have evolved.

  • Solution and reform: Update 9B rules. These rules allow the NPS to enforce safety standards; charge fees to restore damaged parklands; require companies to put up more money to clean up and cap abandoned wells; and better address leaks and spills.
  • Zinke’s rollback: In Secretary Zinke’s recent report, he indicates that the Interior Department could roll back the updated rules to allow the NPS to adequately protect parkland from private oil and gas development.

In November, the Keystone pipeline spill of 210,000 gallons of oil and its protracted cleanup were stark reminders of the risks that energy development can pose to public health, worker safety, and wildlife habitat. The pipeline has already blown past preconstruction estimates of how much and how often it would leak oil, and this latest spill made the list of the 20 worst onshore oil and gas spills by volume on U.S. soil since 2010. The Trump administration’s actions to expand oil and gas development at all costs while simultaneously rolling back safeguards increase the risk of more accidents happening and of setting the administration up for a legacy of destruction.

Mary Ellen Kustin is the director of policy for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Kate Kelly, Michael Conathan, Meghan Miller, Shanée Simhoni, and Shiva Polefka for their contributions to this column.