February 22, 2018

Senators Push Interior Secretary to Restart Key Study of Offshore Drilling Safety Enforcement

With $100,000 already spent, Interior has pulled the plug on an independent inquiry into problems with an important inspection program for offshore oil and gas development

Washington, DC – Today, 19 Senators, led by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to resume a study of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s inspection program for offshore oil and gas development.  The study, which was being conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has already cost taxpayers $100,000 and has been underway since 2016.  The final report would include recommendations for how best to minimize risks associated with drilling operations, and help the Bureau make needed improvements to its safety and environmental stewardship programs that the Government Accountability Office says have fallen short. 

The letter comes just a day after the Bureau announced an investigation into the death of a worker on an offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and weeks after the Trump administration moved to dramatically expand permitting for oil and gas drilling off America’s coasts.  

Joining Whitehouse in signing the letter are Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tom Carper (D-DE), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jack Reed (D-RI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chris Coons (D-DE), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

Full text of the Senators’ letter is below. 

Dear Secretary Zinke:

On December 7, 2017, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) to stop its work on a study ordered by the agency in 2016.  The 21-month study by the NAS would evaluate and make recommendations to the BSEE on its inspection program for offshore oil and gas development, including how best to minimize risks associated with these drilling operations.  At the time of the cancellation, BSEE had already spent $100,000 on the study.  The NAS had formed a committee of experts, held its first meeting, and started planning its second study meeting.  BSEE did not give a cause or explanation for stopping this study. 

As senators representing coastal states, we are acutely aware of the threats offshore drilling can pose to ocean and coastal wildlife, habitats, and communities.  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill demonstrated how devastating a leak can be from an improperly inspected and managed offshore rig.  In the months following the spill, we learned the Deepwater Horizon rig had missed a third of its required federal inspections in the 28 months prior to the disaster.[1]  Eleven people lost their lives, 3-4 million barrels of oil spilled into the ocean, around 1,300 miles of the Gulf shoreline were oiled, and the Gulf of Mexico’s commercial fishing industry lost upwards of $1.6 billion in sales and salary.[2] 

The administration’s January 4, 2018 announcement that it would open up additional areas of our coasts to drilling makes it more important than ever that the federal government is using best practices to monitor the safety of these rigs.  BSEE has been criticized in the past for failing to make significant progress in improving its safety and environmental stewardship programs.  Last March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a performance audit report, “Oil and Gas Management: Stronger Leadership Commitment Needed at Interior to Improve Offshore Oversight and Internal Management,” which noted that “since 2013, BSEE leadership has started several key strategic initiatives to improve its internal management, but none have been successfully implemented.”[3]  Among the failed safety initiatives, the GAO found that “BSEE has not successfully implemented [a] supplemental risk-based inspection capability in the 5 years since taking over the initiative from MMS.” 

BSEE should continue its efforts to respond to GAO’s concerns and improve its inspection program.  This should include soliciting impartial input from the experts through the NAS.  BSEE’s sudden cancellation of this review does not instill confidence as the administration tries to broaden offshore drilling opportunities. 

The stop-work order submitted by BSEE allows for the restart of the NAS’s work within 90 days of its issuance.  We urge BSEE to authorize the NAS to complete the study immediately.  Please do not hesitate to contact our staffs to discuss this matter further. 


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