Federal Engineers Opposed Recent Oil Drilling Safety Rule Changes

Arnold & Itkin

In 2018, the Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), led by Director Scott Angelle, changed well-drilling safety rules that had just been changed two years earlier during the previous presidential administration. Rule-changing processes involve a great deal of memos and responses, all of which create a written record of how new rules are formed. The purpose of keeping a written record of the rule-changing process is to maintain accountability, transparency, and clarity about the reasons behind a rule change.

They are, in other words, a part of a democratic society: evidence of who makes decisions and why those decisions are made.

After the rules were changed, a coalition of environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the BSEE regarding the reasons behind the rule change. The lawsuit alleged that there was no good reason to change the 2016 safety rules.

And now, there may be new evidence to support that claim.

Disagreements with Rule Changes Were Removed from the Record

The Wall Street Journal has learned that certain memos were removed from the public record—memos that showed federal engineers disagreeing with industry insiders and Mr. Angelle himself. In other words, these memos showed experts disagreeing with the rule changes that Mr. Angelle made, which could lend credence to the claim that they were not changed for safety or environmental reasons.

“What these communications show is that the agency was not relying on expertise,” said Richard Revesz, dean emeritus of New York University School of Law. “It was making a political decision that went against the advice of the experts and the experts were being sidelined.”

One of the memos that were removed from the record regarding “drilling margins,” or the pressure levels that drillers are required to maintain to prevent blowouts. These drilling margins were created, in part at least, in response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, which killed 11 workers and spilled 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Staff engineers wanted to keep the drilling margin language the same, but the industry pressured Angelle to eliminate the standard entirely. The disagreement between staff engineers and industry representatives was removed from the record.

In another memo, staff engineers wanted to continue requiring oil drilling companies to test their blowout preventers every 14 days. Their disagreement with an industry proposal to reduce safety testing to every 21 days was also removed.

"The team really wasn’t consulted,” one BSEE official said. “The director did not want a recommendation from the team and asked us to remove our recommendation from that memo.”

Angelle has been criticized for avoiding written records of his conversations with industry executives. In his role as a public official, written records are the primary way the public can understand what his agency is doing and why it is doing it. Public trust is built on memos like these, but it’s difficult to get a full picture of what’s going on, especially when moments like this happen:

"When Mr. Malstrom asked Mr. Angelle to put his order in writing for the administrative record, 'he just said that that was not important and he is giving us the verbal approval to do it on that phone call.'”

These Rules Forget the Lessons We Learned from the Deepwater Horizon Crew

There’s a saying among pilots: “Checklists are written in blood.” The same could be said of safety rules aboard offshore drilling rigs. The engineers and experts of the BSEE created the 2016 rules to make life safer and more reliable for offshore workers. These memos (or lack thereof) suggest that the 2018 rules were created only to make drilling more profitable for oil companies and their executives.

In 2010, there were no other firms who represented as many crew members of the Deepwater Horizon as we did. We stood with more than a third of the crew and their families, seeking to hold BP accountable for their negligence and refusal to put worker safety before quarterly profits. There were no firms who were as invested in those workers’ lives as we were. When it comes down to who to side with, our firm will always choose the workers.

Contact Us

Get a Completely Free Evaluation of Your Case

  • Please enter your first name.
  • Please enter your last name.
  • Please enter your email address.
    This isn't a valid email address.
  • Please enter your phone number.
    This isn't a valid phone number.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.