RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Eight years ago today, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 people and led to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident prompted big changes in how the country regulates offshore drilling. Now there's a push to expand offshore drilling, and some environmentalists are worried. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: As the Deepwater Horizon crew was finishing drilling a well, there was a fiery explosion that was portrayed in a 2016 movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEPWATER HORIZON")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Deepwater Horizon.
BRADY: Millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The film pins most of the blame on employees of oil giant BP. That echoes a presidential commission report that said the disaster also raised questions about the safety of the entire offshore drilling industry.
DON BOESCH: We have to never forget the lessons of 2010.
BRADY: Marine science professor Don Boesch was a member of the commission. While not all of the recommendations were implemented, Boesch says offshore drilling is safer now.
BOESCH: I think that the government is in a much better position than it was in 2010. And the industry is much better prepared.
BRADY: Before the accident, promoting and regulating offshore drilling was all under one federal agency. That created conflicts of interest. So a new agency was created within the Interior Department called the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Insiders call it BSEE. Now Boesch and others warn that the lines between regulating and promoting are once again being blurred. They point to statements like this from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke before an oil industry gathering in March.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RYAN ZINKE: Interior should not be in the business of being an adversary. We should be in the business of being a partner.
BRADY: And Zinke chose Louisiana politician Scott Angelle to head BSEE. Angelle has received campaign contributions and support from the oil and gas industry. He also served on the board of a pipeline company. After the Deepwater Horizon accident, he led the opposition to a drilling moratorium. Here he is firing up an oil-friendly crowd in July 2010, arguing against calls for a faster transition to renewable energy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SCOTT ANGELLE: Let's keep the conversation real. America is not yet ready to get all of its fuel from the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees.
BRADY: And since taking over BSEE, Angelle has maintained his ties to oil, says Jackie Savitz with the environmental group Oceana.
JACKIE SAVITZ: He's clearly been proactive in meeting with the industry and addressing its concerns. And it doesn't seem like, you know, he sees the other side as something that he needs to be invested in.
BRADY: Angelle and BSEE declined NPR's interview request. But in a statement, the agency says Angelle is laser focused on safety and that is not at odds with also focusing on robust production. Still, Angelle's meetings with industry led to a series of regulatory changes. There's talk of combining BSEE with another agency that manages offshore leases. And strict requirements aimed at keeping offshore wells from blowing out could be overhauled. BSEE's first director, Michael Bromwich, says that rule took six years to develop.
MICHAEL BROMWICH: The regulated industry is having too much influence in reshaping the regulations to make them less onerous, less costly in some sense but also less protective of safety and the environment.
BRADY: The industry rejects that argument. Randall Luthi is president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore energy companies.
RANDALL LUTHI: No company wants to have an accident. There is no economical bonus, no economical reason that helps you if you have an accident. Safety and good economics go hand in hand.
BRADY: Luthi says the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon accident and the $65 billion it cost BP made the industry more safety conscious. He says offshore drillers don't need a heavy-handed regulator to ensure companies won't make the same mistakes again. Jeff Brady, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.