The Trump administration has halted an independent scientific study of offshore oil inspections by a federal safety agency created after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig fire killed 11 men off the Louisiana coast and dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine was told to cease its review of the inspection program conducted by the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which is part of the Interior Department. Established following the massive BP spill, the bureau was assigned the role of improving offshore safety inspections and federal oversight.
The Dec. 7 bureau letter ordering the suspension of all National Academies' work under the federal contract said that within 90 days the department would decide whether to lift the order or terminate the study altogether.
Bureau spokesman Greg Julian said Thursday a new "risk-based" component to the inspection program is being developed within the bureau, and the academies study "was paused … to allow time to ensure that there are no duplicate efforts." The bureau focus is increasing the safety of offshore oil and gas operations, he said.
The agency, which regulates offshore drilling, is led by Louisiana political veteran Scott Angelle, who was named to the post in May. Angelle is the agency's fourth director since it was established in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
"I think this is an example of Trump demonstrating he wants to open up federal waters to more drilling at the expense of people on the planet," said the Sierra Club's Kelly Martin. "He is much more supportive of corporate polluters than protecting people's safety."
After President Donald Trump's surprise victory last year, many industry leaders and local officials in Louisiana's hard-hit oil-dependent areas were optimistic that their added costs of doing business would be reduced as the new administration focused on deregulation.
After the 2010 incident, the Obama administration had implemented dozens of new regulations, which industry officials have long criticized for adding undue costs that ultimately stunted drilling activity.
Now, some observers, including Donald Boesch, who was on the presidential oil spill commission and had a hand in shaping the post-BP spill safety reforms, expressed concern that the National Academies' study suspension was driven by "some more political motivation to not feed into a narrative of more regulations."
"We still have incidents down in the Gulf. They haven't gone away, they haven't been all stopped, and we still have people getting killed and hurt down there in the offshore industry, and we still have leaks that are happening," Boesch said. "So there's a lot of work yet to be done. I don't think that anyone can conclude that everything is just perfect the way it is."
Others have criticized BSEE for not providing enough industry oversight. In a report released in March 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the bureau "continues to rely on pre-Deepwater Horizon incident policies and procedures," which it described as "a longstanding deficiency."
The order marks the second time in four months that the Trump administration has halted a study by the National Academies. In August, the Interior Department suspended a National Academies study of potential health risks for people living near Appalachian surface coal mines.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is also tasked with improving offshore drilling environmental protections. It was established in 2011 to separate enforcement of offshore drilling from federal revenue collection and permitting to avoid possible dysfunction and conflicts in enforcement against violations.
The committee of scientists examining the inspection program held its only meeting in late October in Washington, D.C., said spokesman William Kearney. Future meetings planned for the Gulf region have been put on hold.
The ad hoc committee was tasked with taking an inward look at BSEE in order to answer questions and make recommendations to issues such as identifying a goal for the inspection program; determining how inspections can focus on risks and enhancing safety as well as compliance; determining what can be learned from offshore inspection programs in other countries; and outlining the program's key functions as far as five and 10 years in the future.
"The National Academies are grateful to the committee members for their service and disappointed that their important study has been stopped," Kearney said Thursday.
The Interior Department headed by Secretary Ryan Zinke declined to comment on the study suspension. Spokeswoman Heather Swift said it was a bureau decision to halt the study, not a department decision.
Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols said there is no excuse for rolling back safeguards for workers and the environment. "The Trump administration is aggressively trying to unlearn all of the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster," he said.
In August, the Interior Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration cited budget reasons for suspending the National Academies study of potential health risks to those near Appalachian surface mines. But Kearney said Thursday that other studies for the department weren't halted. That study remains on hold though the scientific group has said it ought to be continued.
"Given how important this study is to the citizens and communities surrounding these surface mining sites in Appalachia, the National Academies believe the study should be completed and are exploring options to do so," Kearney added. "Some private donors have expressed an interest in funding the completion of the study."