To repeal or not to repeal: Reviewing the US Well Control Rule

US President Donald Trump has ordered a review of the Well Control Rule, which tightened requirements for blowout preventers on oil rigs as a result of failures found in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. But is there any justification to loosen such standards? Ross Davies reports.


The recent decision taken by Donald Trump to revise regulations implemented by Barack Obama did not come as much of a surprise. However, while Trump’s attempts to repeal the likes of Obamacare have generated incalculable headlines in the mainstream media, the proposed rollback of offshore drilling rules has been met with less commotion.

But Trump's executive order, directed at the Interior Department, should not be taken lightly.

The central tenet of Trump’s order to newly appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is to relax drilling restrictions in marine sanctuaries off the south-eastern Atlantic and Alaskan coasts, which are currently under federal protection.

Alongside this are plans to loosen safety regulations on oil rigs. The timing of Trump’s announcement is particularly odd, given its coincidence with the seventh anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill – which killed eleven workers and dumped millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Learning from the past: Deepwater Horizon spill and new rules

It was precisely this disaster, the worst in US environmental history, which forced the Obama administration to introduce the Well Control Rule last year.

Its function is to tighten safety around blowout preventers – the failsafe used on rigs to prevent explosions. In the BP rig’s case, the eruption was partially caused by the bending of a drill pipe, which did trigger the blowout preventer, but ultimately failed to work.

The possibility that the rule might be revoked has been met with severe criticism within environmental circles.

"The Well Control Rule draws lessons learned from the BP blowout, and applies that knowledge to reduce the risk of future disasters."

“The Well Control Rule draws lessons learned from the BP blowout, and applies that knowledge to reduce the risk of future disasters,” says Bob Deans, director of strategic engagement at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s one of the most important steps we took, as a nation, in response to the BP tragedy, to try to prevent anything like it from happening again.”

The regulation, which came into play in April 2016, was introduced on the back of several years of investigative commissions into the Deepwater Horizon incident. According to Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer and Arctic Program director for the Wilderness Society, it is “an excellent instance of the federal government doing its job well”.

“Many in the offshore industry have closely followed rule development in the years since the BP incident and made design and operational improvements consistent with the rule,” explains Epstein. “As a result, loss of well control incidents throughout the US have trended downward from eight in 2013 to just two last year.”

Addressing and incorporating over 176 public comments, the final Well Control Rule was notable for ensuring safe drilling margins, the improvement of blowout preventer designs and the introduction of real-time monitoring – whose absences, some argue, contributed to the BP blast.

Better than nothing: How effective was the Well Control Rule?

Yet, despite these ostensible improvements – and evidence of an industry perhaps seeking to learn from its mistakes – some were never entirely convinced over the Well Control Rule as a means of making offshore drilling safer.

“Frankly, the rule itself is absolutely not strong enough to make offshore drilling safe, but it is better than nothing,” says Jacqueline Savitz, vice president of Oceana’s US Oceans division. “Blowout Preventers are the last line of defence against a blowout, but they have serious design flaws, and are insufficiently tested. As a result they have a very high failure rate, as we saw in the Gulf.”

If Deans and Epstein are in favour of the rule – with Savitz somewhere in the middle – oil industry players are very much on the other side of the coin.

"In the wake of Trump’s announcement, many groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), voiced their support for the move."

In the wake of Trump’s announcement, many groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), voiced their support for the move, arguing that the regulations were too costly to implement and ineffectual, in any case.

The API and NOIA could not be reached for comment for this article.

According to Savitz, however, there is a certain irony here. The Well Control Rule, she says, is based on standards devised by oil and gas players themselves, including the API and NOIA. So, why are they lamenting regulations they helped to create in the first place?

It would be ironic if they weakened the rule, considering that much of it was based on so-called industry standards,” she says. “The industry opposed it, even though those standards were their idea in the first place. And it’s unfortunate because it’s an industry that has clearly invested much more heavily on improving production technology, and safety technology hasn’t kept pace.”

Safety versus profit: The crux of the argument

It is likely that Trump will pay little heed to environmental voices. The relaxing of offshore regulations will “create thousands and thousands of jobs and billion dollars of wealth,” he promised in April.

But does this profit margin argument add up? Not necessarily. According to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s economic analysis of publically available data, the final Well Control Rule is cost-efficient.

Nonetheless, for many, this goes well beyond mere cost-cutting.

“This is an industry that puts other people’s lives and livelihoods at risk for its own profit, and it’s an industry that can afford to do it right,” says Savitz.

“To roll back that rule, to ignore the hard lessons of the BP blowout, to dismiss the lives lost on the Deepwater Horizon, would put our workers, waters and wildlife at senseless and needless risk,” adds Deans. To do that would be shameful.”