Democrats grill offshore drilling safety agency on permit waivers
House Natural Resources Committee Democrats repeated their demand on Wednesday that the Interior Department furnish years of unredacted drilling permits showing how many waivers from safety rules it had given to offshore oil and gas rig operators.
Interior issued nearly 1,700 waivers from parts of the Well Control Rule between its enactment in 2016 and last spring, as POLITICO first reported last week. Critics have questioned why Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement have granted the waivers to a rule designed to respond to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and why it has not made waiver requests public.
“We were absolutely devastated by the BP oil spill” resulting from the Deepwater Horizon explosion, said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.). “These Well Control Rules were put in place to avoid this happening again. It has dumbfounded our entire delegation after we put these rules in place that we see them shredded to Swiss cheese right now.”
Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee on energy and minerals, criticized BSEE Director Scott Angelle for not appearing before the subcommittee himself. Lowenthal said he was told Angelle was "too busy" to attend, despite being in town Wednesday.
Committee leaders earlier Wednesday sent a letter to Interior requesting Angelle’s phone records, pointing to a 2017 speech in which he told oil executives, “I’d rather you call me," because written correspondence would be subject to public records requests. The speech was featured in a segment last year on John Oliver's HBO show Last Week Tonight.
Doug Morris, chief of BSEE's offshore regulatory program, appeared at the hearing instead.
BSEE has said that it approved nearly 700 “alternate compliances” in the last six months of the Obama administration, compared to 960 in the first 14 months of the Trump administration, but it has not released detailed data behind those figures.
“All of us are here are thrilled that BSEE has already performed an analysis and knows what has taken place under President Obama and President Trump and that data is readily available,” Lowenthal said with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice. “Will you commit to providing the unredacted data that we requested?”
Morris was noncommittal, saying only that he would bring Lowenthal’s request “back to the office.”
Morris told the congressmen that BSEE had would only offer the waivers to companies that could prove that the proposed procedures were met or exceeded the standards BSEE set. The industry had improved the technology it uses to prevent accidents faster than BSEE could set standards, he said.
“The industry since Deepwater Horizon has actively improved standards,” he said.
Republicans defended BSEE actions, saying granting the waivers only proved that the Obama-era rule was in parts unworkable.
The Democrats' “irritation is misguided,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.). “BSEE having to provide nearly 1,700 waivers to the well control rule is clear evidence the rule imposes unrealistic requirements and that waivers are necessary to remedy the issues the rules cause."
By: Ben Lefebvre
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