NSPE Fights Dangerous Attempt to Roll Back Deepwater Horizon Safety Regulations

March/April 2018

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
NSPE Fights Dangerous Attempt to Roll Back Deepwater Horizon Safety Regulations


 Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010NSPE is pushing back against the Department of the Interior’s proposed rollback of essential regulations implemented in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. The department finalized rules after a comprehensive multiphase rulemaking process in 2016. NSPE actively advocated for an enhanced role for professional engineers to protect the public health, safety, and welfare, and these provisions were included in the final 2016 rule. The department is now proposing to eliminate many of the provisions in the 2016 rule, including several specific requirements for professional engineers.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s proposed revisions for the rulemaking (Oil and Gas and Sulphur Operations on the Outer Continental Shelf-Oil and Gas Production Safety Systems-Revisions) pose a grave risk to public safety. This proposed rule would amend and update the 30 CFR part 250, subpart H, Oil and Gas Production Safety Systems regulations, which were finalized in 2016, nearly six years to the day after the disastrous and tragic Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and caused the biggest oil spill in US history.

After the explosion, the BSEE undertook a comprehensive and deliberative five-year process to create a new set of standards and regulations to ensure that the lessons learned from this tragedy would be applied to mitigate future catastrophes. All stakeholders, ranging from the public to private industry to environmental groups, were able to take part in this multiphase process. The finalized 2016 rules included both performance-based standards and prescriptive rules based on this extensive feedback from stakeholders and analysis.

Central to the rulemaking process was addressing the specific issues that caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster, such as the malfunctioning of the blowout preventer and the capacity to monitor and withstand high-pressure drilling. New standards and requirements were implemented to prevent similar incidents and acknowledged the need for qualified, independent third parties to perform these functions. Professional engineers play a critical role in these processes. Consequently, the 2016 finalized rule included additional core responsibilities for PEs to ensure the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare, which PEs must place above all other considerations.

Unfortunately, the proposed revisions seek to remove the very provisions that were added to rectify the causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The summary of the rulemaking states that “this proposed rule would fortify the Administration’s objective of facilitating energy dominance through encouraging increased domestic oil and gas production, by reducing unnecessary burdens on stakeholders while maintaining or advancing the level of safety and environmental protection.”

As currently written, however, the recommended revisions would endanger rather than advance the level of safety and environmental protection. BSEE proposes to revise some of the requirements related to the diagrams and drawings the operators must submit to the bureau for approval. BSEE would revise this provision to require operators to submit only the most critical documents and have those documents stamped by a PE. PEs have specific experience, qualifications, and education that enable them to provide the critical engineering expertise to identify potential safety and environmental risks. The existing rules were implemented to ensure that PEs use their engineering skills to achieve compliance and incorporate the necessary safety measures that will mitigate the likelihood of future disasters like the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The need for these standards and the highest level of expertise is particularly great at this time given that, according to energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, oil and gas production could reach an all-time high in the Gulf of Mexico.

NSPE therefore submitted a formal public comment urging the Department of the Interior to retain all of the requirements for PEs in its revised rulemaking. On behalf of its members, NSPE will continue to act on this issue throughout the rulemaking process and educate policymakers on the necessity and urgency of these critical standards.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE’s associate director of government relations and advocacy.