The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Changes for Offshore Drilling Safety Rules

  • May 10th, 2019 — by Terra Bowling — Category: Endangered Species

  • Last week, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), a division of the Department of Interior (DOI), announced final changes to offshore drilling safety rules enacted following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The agency stated that it needed to amend the portions of the rule that caused “unnecessary burdens” on stakeholders. Many fear the changes could pave the way for another disaster like Deepwater Horizon.

    The Deepwater Horizon explosion resulted in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, killing 11 workers and spilling 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days. A commission charged with analyzing the causes of the spill determined that the disaster was due to “a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.” One of the primary causes was the failure of a “blowout preventer” (BOP). These are devices that can be closed to prevent high-pressure oil or gas from escaping during drilling operations. The commission also identified necessary safety developments for the industry.

    In 2016, the BSEE, under the Obama administration, issued the Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control final rule. The rule included requirements for the construction, oversight, and inspection of well components. Last year, the BSEE, under the Trump Administration, issued a proposed rule to amend the 2016 rule. “These revisions modify regulations pertaining to offshore oil and gas drilling, completions, workovers, and decommissioning in accordance with Executive and Secretary of the Interior’s Orders to ensure safety and environmental protection, while correcting errors and reducing certain unnecessary regulatory burdens imposed under the existing regulations.” BSEE claimed that the rule changes will save the offshore oil and gas industry nearly a billion dollars over 10 years.

    The final revised rule changes approximately 20% of the original rule. Among other changes, the final rule:

    • Revises the safety tests requirement for BOPs from 30-minute tests every 14 days to 5-minute tests every 21 days;
    • Revises the safe drilling margin requirements to allow operators the option to request BSEE approval of lower drilling margins at an earlier date;
    • Eliminates the requirement for a BSEE-approved independent expert to validate safety measures and equipment and replaces it with a requirement for an independent third party that meets requirements listed under § 250.732(b);
    • Limits the number of connection points to a BOP;
    • Requires an array of rams with specific capabilities; and
    • Specifies a new testing methodology for a critical BOP component that reduces wear and tear on the component.

    The full Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control final rule is available at and will go into effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register. The final rule comes on the heels of a federal court ruling that the White House overstepped its authority in ending bans on offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic. The Trump administration recently announced that it would halt plans to expand offshore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.

    After reviewing the best available scientific and commercial information, including the SRT’s findings, and considering public comments on the proposed rule, NMFS listed the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s Whale as endangered. The listing means that “take” of the whale is now prohibited under the ESA. Next, NMFS will develop a recovery program and designate critical habitat for the species. In addition, the MMPA provides heightened protections to marine mammals designated as “depleted.” Although the whale was not designated as depleted, its listing could result in a change to its MMPA status. The notice of the listing is available here. The listing will go into effect on May 15, 2019.

  • Terra Bowling
    Senior Research Counsel

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