Another National Academy of Sciences Study Halted

What Happened: A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study aimed at investigating how the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement could improve its inspections of offshore oil and gas development was halted by DOI. Officials at NASEM said they were not given a reason why the study was halted.

Why it matters: This study was requested by a number of experts and DOI itself in response to the catastrophic April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was the largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations that resulted in the loss of human lives and significant environmental damage. Therefore, it is imperative that Deepwater Horizon be used as a case study for research, in order to learn how inspections can be improved to prevent such catastrophic accidents in the future. Not allowing such a study to progress puts people’s lives and environmental health at risk.

In late December 2017, a statement released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reported that one of their studies was halted by the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The planned 21-month study was aimed at investigating how BSEE could improve its inspections of offshore oil and gas development. The DOI has 90 days as of the issuance of its stop-work order on the NASEM study that can either be lifted so that the study can continue, or the contract for the study will be terminated indefinitely. In its statement on the stop-order of this study, NASEM expressed “disappointment” that this “important study has been stopped.” This is the second NASEM study to be halted by the DOI under the Trump administration.

In April, 2010 BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and released 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 workers and the spill caused an estimated $8.8 billion in environmental damages. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the most damaging in U.S. history.

A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sharply criticized the BSEE for conducting inspections that are still based on pre-Deepwater Horizon standards. The report said, “The use of outdated investigative policies and procedures is a long-standing deficiency.” In response to this report, the BSEE requested a study by NASEM to determine the best inspection practices to help avoid another catastrophic accident like Deepwater Horizon. The study was requested in 2016.

BSEE notified NASEM with a stop-work order on December 7, 2017. Reasoning is circumspect as to why the study was halted, especially since BSEE itself requested the study in 2016. Tiffany Gray, a spokesperson for BSEE, said “the NAS study has been paused to allow BSEE time to determine if it duplicates efforts with the development of the risk-based component of our inspection program, which is taking place internally at BSEE.”

Given the mission of BSEE is to promote safety, protect the environment, and conserve resources offshore through vigorous regulatory oversight and enforcement, it is inconsistent for the agency to abruptly stop an already underway study to address crucial questions of safety and environmental protections associated with offshore oil and gas development. As in 2016, the BSEE should be encouraging the development of scientific recommendations to increase the effectiveness of its inspections, ultimately making offshore oil drilling safer for people and the environment. Halting this study from taking place only places peoples’ lives and our environment at risk from potential future oil spills.

On January 4, 2018, less than a month after the DOI halted the study, the Trump administration announced its plans to roll back a ban on new oil and gas development off the coasts of Florida and California.

Last Revised Date: 

January 10, 2018