Pensacola area worried about Trump Administration’s moves to relax offshore drilling rules

Pensacola News Journal, 10/08/2018

By: Melissa Nelson Gabriel

© Oceana

Pensacola City Manager Keith Wilkins doesn’t hesitate to offer his opinion on recent moves by the Trump Administration to ease regulations on the offshore drilling industry.

“It’s not good,” said Wilkins, who has a degree in environmental studies and was Escambia County’s director of environmental resources in 2010 when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 men and spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The massive spill, which coated beaches from Perdido Key to Navarre with thick globs of weathered oil, could happen again, said Wilkins, who has prior experience working as logging engineer offshore.

“The oil industry is already very reliant on self-monitoring,” Wilkins said. “What is happening is that more self-monitoring and self-reporting is being allowed in an industry where more third-party oversight and government oversight is actually needed.”

Under plans approved by the Trump Administration last month and set to take effect on Dec. 27, a requirement for third-party inspections of offshore drilling safety equipment would be dropped and replaced with testing and documentation by equipment operators.

The changes are part of a 48-page notice from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The notice stated that some Obama-era drilling regulations had created “unduly burdensome requirements on oil and natural gas production operators.” The notice also stated that the requirements failed to meaningfully increase safety.

Randal Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore drilling companies, said the moves makes sense.

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“The revisions develop a rule that reduces the unnecessary burdens placed on industry, while still maintaining world-class safety and environmental protections,” Luthi said in a prepared statement.

But Christian Wagley, a Pensacola-area environmental activist and member of the Gulf Restoration Network, disagreed. Wagley served on Escambia County’s RESTORE advisory board, which guided political leaders in how to best spend environmental restitution money sent to the area from the BP sill.

Wagley noted that news of the Trump administration changes to the drilling regulations came at the same time state and local officials sent out news releases touting the fact that Florida is set to receive a nearly $300 million payment in RESTORE Act money because of the 2010 spill. The money comes from legal settlements paid by BP, Transocean and others found liable for violating the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations.

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“These federal rollbacks make the oil and gas industry less safe and make us more likely to see another spill along the Gulf Coast,” he said. “The most dangerous part of this new rule is that it eliminates the requirement for third-part inspection of safety equipment. That puts rig workers and the environment at risk.”

Also opposing any changes to the Obama-era drilling regulations is Steve Jones of the national Center for Biological Diversity.

Floridians frequently get mixed messages from politicians about whether the state is indeed off limits to drilling or protected by a moratorium, he said.

“Moratoriums can expire and politicians can change,” he said. “It is dangerous to refuse to learn the lessons of Deepwater Horizon.”

And, Jones said, the 2010 spill showed drilling elsewhere in the Gulf can be devastating for Florida even if drilling isn’t allowed off the state’s coast.

“The oil industry should not be self regulated, it is too dirty, too dangerous and we know what can happen.”

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