Nelson threatens to block roll-back of offshore drilling regulations

Jan 3 • 299 Views • View Comments

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U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said today he plans to invoke a procedural rule known as the Congressional Review Act in an attempt to block the Trump administration’s latest efforts to roll back several safety standards the Obama administration put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster.

The move comes less than a week after the U.S. Dept. of Interior released for public comment its latest proposal to un-do a series of safety regulations put in place to prevent another incident like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy from happening. Among the provisions the agency is seeking to un-do is one that requires a third-party to certify that an oil rig’s blowout preventer is functioning properly.

“Almost five million barrels of oil spilled as a result of a defective device called a blowout preventer,” Nelson said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Now, what the Interior Department and this administration is trying to do is undo the updated standards for shear rams and blowout preventers and is trying to get rid of a required third party to certify the safety mechanisms.”

Nelson, a long-time opponent of having oil rigs near Florida’s coast, often cites the state’s unique environment, its multi-billion dollar, tourism-driven economy and the vital national military training areas as reasons why drilling should not be allowed near Florida’s coast. He said today that if Interior finalizes a rule to roll-back the Obama-era regulations, he will work to block it.

“The BP spill devastated my state’s economy and eleven people lost their lives,” Nelson said. “That’s why I plan to subject this misguided rule to the Congressional Review Act.”

The Congressional Review Act gives Congress the power to overturn an agency’s final rule. A lawmaker seeking to block an agency rule from taking effect can file a so-called Resolution of Disapproval within 60 days of a final rule being sent to Congress. If a Resolution of Disapproval is approved by a majority in both the House and Senate and signed into law by the president, the agency’s rule would be overturned.

The Interior Department is currently accepting public comments on its proposal to roll-back the Obama-era drilling regulations until January 29. After that, the agency will likely work to finalize the rule.

“I hope the public understands that and starts registering some complaints,” Nelson said, “and I hope that during that time every Floridian remembers what happened to us when the beaches of Pensacola Beach were blackened with tar and oil, and we lost a whole season of our guests, our tourists who come to this extraordinary state.”

In 2006, Nelson and then-Sen. Mel Martinez successfully brokered a deal to ban drilling off Florida’s Gulf coast through the year 2022. Nelson filed legislation last year to extend that ban an additional five years, to 2027.

And here’s a rush transcript of his speech:

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Remarks on the Senate floor
January 3, 2018

Sen. Nelson: Mr. President, on December 28, the Department of the Interior and this administration sent the oil industry a belated Christmas present, just three days after Christmas, because they published a proposal to release offshore drilling companies from sensible rules designed to prevent a tragedy like the one that we experienced back in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That was at a time that 11 people lost their lives, that almost five million barrels were spilled of oil spilled as a result of a defective device clause called a blowout preventer.

Five million barrels of oil sloshing around in the Gulf of Mexico, much of which is still out there. It’s down at depths of 5,000 feet where the actual well pipe came out, 5,000 feet a mile underneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

And of course we know the economic damage that that did all up and down the Gulf of Mexico. As a matter of fact, when the wind shifted since the explosion was some 50 or 60 miles off of Louisiana, but the wind shifted and they started blowing that oil to the east, and it got as far east aspens coal a beach, and those sugary white sands were covered up with black oil, and that Associated Press and UPI photographs went around the world. And do you know the consequence of that? Even though when the winds continued and it went as far as Destin and the white sands of Destin, it had tar balls float as far east as the white sand beaches of Panama City Beach, and then the wind shifted and brought it back the other way.

But do you know what happened as a consequence of that? Because people all over the world had seen that photograph. They thought oil was on the entire beaches of the Gulf Coast of Florida and the people did not come. The tourists did not come. Now, I haven’t even spoken about the economic and environmental degradation that occurred throughout the entire Gulf and the fishing industries, and of course the administration has proposed to do now drilling off the east coast of the United States, including off of the coast of the state of the presiding officer.

There are a number of us that have come together that don’t think that that matches with what our tourism industry is. It certainly doesn’t match with regard to our fishing industries, but it also does not match with our United States Department of Defense training and testing mission. So if you look at the Gulf Coast off of Florida, the only place where it is off limits in law, that’s the largest testing and training area for the United States military in the world. But if you go up and down the Atlantic coast of the eastern seaboard, you will see training range after training range, and you get as far south as the central east coast of Florida and lo and behold what is that area of protection for not only the US Department of Defense, but for NASA and other agencies. It’s because that’s where we are rocketing our satellites into orbit, of which the first stages have to have a place to land. That’s where when we had the space shuttle and soon we are rocketing astronauts, American astronauts to the international space station on American rockets, many of whom first stages will fall in the Atlantic Ocean below, just like the solid rocket boosters did on the space shuttle when it launched.

And so there are reasons not to have drilling platforms out there, but let’s come back to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. What happened was deep below the sea bed, miles further into the earth’s crust, pressure had built up, and an explosion had occurred. The safety mechanism is right where the pipe comes out of the sea bed, and that pipe then goes up five miles to the surface to deliver oil. The safety mechanism is a blowout preventer which is like a huge set of pincers that comes through and cuts off the pipe. If that blowout preventer, in other words preventing the blowout of the well, if it is defective like it was in the BP oil spill, five million barrels of oil spewed out five miles below the surface of the gulf into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and rendered the havoc and economic damage that it did.

So in the turmoil and trauma that ensued, there was obviously a need in the Department of Interior in the bureau of safety, it’s called BSEE, to go in and change the rules to give additional safety mechanisms to make sure that this wouldn’t happen again. Well, lo and behold, there is now a change, and we are starting to see the first attempts at the weakening of those rules.

Sometimes the issue of regulatory reform feels abstract or arbitrary. This is technical stuff. It’s dry. But safety standards created after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they’re not dull and boring. They’re life or death. They were written specifically to make sure that families like those 11 that lost their loved ones wouldn’t have to be notified again that there was a preventable death.

So what are these new rules about? Well, they are real estate coming in on the blowout preventer, which is a system to control the flow of oil to seal an oil well. A blowout preventer is what stands between the enormous pressure that builds up in the oil well pipe and the ocean around it. Its purpose is exactly what the name sounds like. It’s to prevent the oil from blowing out into the sea. Uncontrollably. And how many days did it take? It took several months to finally get that well capped 5,000 feet below the surface of the water. These are massive pieces of equipment. The blowout preventer for Deepwater Horizon stood 57 feet tall, and it weighed over 400 tons. That’s how big this thing is. Then there is a piece of that blowout preventer 57-feet high mechanism, a device called a device with two blades that seal off the well in an emergency. And that’s what failed to fully close in the BP oil spill.

Now, what the Interior Department and this administration is trying to do is undo the updated standards for sheer rams and blowout preventers and is trying to get rid of a required third party to certify the safety mechanisms. Obviously, after what we suffered, this is a commonsense thing to do to have those safety mechanisms, and it means that for a third party to ensure the safety mechanisms by certifying that they are in place, it means that somebody, other than the oil company, needs to make sure their safety equipment is in place and functioning properly. These rules require better training for workers, real-time monitoring of deep water drilling and inspections to increase safety. These rules were also the product of a thorough and transparent discussion by scientists, engineers, industry representatives, agency officials, and the public, and it took six years after the spill for the well-control rule to be finalized.

Now the Trump Interior Department wants to pull a bait and switch, reversing the safety measures, and giving the public a mere 30 days to review a highly technical rule. It took six years to develop this rule ensuring safety devices and now they have a rule to undo it and they are going to give 30 days. That’s nothing more than a free pass to the oil and gas industry at the expense of everybody else, including folks that work on those rigs that are going to have to suffer if there’s another blowout. There are a lot of other things, communities, marine life, your state’s economy, my state’s economy, the gulf state’s economy. It’s totally misguided and reckless.

Over the past year President Trump has issued executive orders cut straight from big oil’s playbook. He directed agencies to gut rules designed to protect the environment and the safety of workers if the rules interfered with an oil company’s bottom line. That’s what this one does. It saves them some $900 million. He directed the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary Zinke, to reconsider the well-control rule which was finalized in 2016. That rule stemmed directly from what we had learned in the investigation of the 2010 BP spill.

And by the way, the agency that issued this proposed rollback, it’s long name, BSEE, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, it’s separate from the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, the agency that schedules leases in the outer continental shelf.

Before the 2010 spill, the folks who worked with the oil industry to, were the same people in charge of inspecting the rigs in charge of compliance with the safety standards. Talk about a cozy relationship. That’s why one of the first recommendations on the BP spill was to split those responsibilities into two different agencies, one that schedules lease sales and the other that does the safety. That was a very important step, both to clarify the mission of each agency and to restore public trust in offshore regulators. Yet, over the summer there were reports that the Trump administration wanted to re-combine these two agencies. Only one stakeholder group would benefit from that, and you can bet what it is. It’s not the consumers, it’s not the tourists, it’s not the scientists, it’s not the environmentalists, it’s the oil industry.

And so now the Trump administration wants to smack down more recommendations from that investigation, from marine biologists to Chamber of Commerce, I can tell you the people in Florida understand how important it is to keep drilling off the coast and where there is drilling to make sure that the safety mechanisms that were corrected after the BP spill, that they stay in place, but that’s not what happens happening right here in Washington.

When the Interior Department released this revised rule last week, my colleague, a Republican congressman from Sarasota, Florida, said, “It would be a huge mistake to weaken these safety regulations.” End of quote.

And that if the Interior Department doesn’t rescind the proposal, he went on to say, Congress should intervene and codify the rules permanently. He’s right, and I agree with Congressman Buchanan, my colleague in the Florida delegation who has an “R” behind his name.

Mr. President, that’s why I plan to subject this misguided rule to the Congressional Review Act, a CRA.

The Congressional Review Act was once the option of last resort. It was meant to ensure that Congress could override the administration if a rule was widely opposed. In most cases the Congressional Review Act wasn’t necessary because Congress, if it opposed a rule strongly enough, there was enough consensus to pass a law to fix it. At the beginning of this Congress, the CRA was a favorite tool of the party of the presiding officer today of our colleagues across the aisle. It was a favorite tool of the Republicans who wanted to take a sledgehammer to Obama administration’s legacy through the rules that they had enacted. And in 2017, the Senate took 17 votes on CRA resolutions of disapproval on everything from bear hunting on national wildlife refuges in Alaska to drug testing of unemployment benefit recipients.

Well, I think this dangerous proposal from the Interior Department deserves the same level of attention. This proposal is open to public comment until January 29. You’re not going to get six years this time. You’re only going to get 30 days, and it ends up January 29.

I hope the public understands that and starts registering some complaints, and I hope that during that time every Floridian remembers what happened to us when the beaches of Pensacola beach were blackened with tar and oil and we lost a whole season of our guests, our tourists who come to this extraordinary state of natural environment, the beautiful Florida beaches. I hope that every Floridian will remember, whether you were a hotelier, restaurateur, whether you are the dry cleaners, whether you had the taxi services, when you got hit in your pocketbook, I hope that every American who rightly has an interest in protecting our beaches, our oceans, our marine life, decides to write in and complain to Secretary Zinke exactly what he’s putting at risk with this proposal.

The Interior Department claims the revised proposal will lessen unnecessary regulatory burdens. That’s their words. Unnecessary regulatory burdens on the oil and gas industry saving these businesses money. It’s estimated saving some $900 million for the oil industry. But what about all the other businesses that will be hurt by a spill if that bailout preventer doesn’t cut that pipe in two and seal off the well? Which was the lesson learned from the BP horizon spill.

So, we want to go back and weaken these rules? The BP spill devastated my state’s economy. Eleven people lost their lives. Louisiana’s bayous were inundated with gooey oil. I talked to two professor researchers at Louisiana State University, LSU, they compared the critters that developed in the bayous where the oil went in to the same kind of critters, a little fish, about that big, the ones, their progenies were stunted. They were mentally deformed, could not act like normal killifish, a little fish about that big, compared to the bays and bayous where those killifish hatched and grew in waters where there was no oil sloshing around in the waters.

So for 87 days five million barrels of oil gushed, and I bet that folks don’t even realize that there’s a bill that’s happening right now. As a matter of fact, it’s been leaking for 13 years. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan toppled an offshore drilling platform owned by Taylor Energy, and because of the way that the platform slid, several of the wells were buried and have yet to be plugged. We all know it is not a question of if there will be another spill, but when.

And oh by the way, the one that’s been going on since 2004, and how catastrophic is the next one? Is it going to be off of the Carolinas? Is it going to be off of Virginia and all of our military fleet in Norfolk? Is it going to be off of Jacksonville and Mayport, as well as the sub base for our Trident Submarines? Is it going to be off of Canaveral where our commercial, government rockets are launched into space dropping first stages and where the testing for the Trident Submarine that is based in Georgia, where that testing is done with the telemetry on the Eastern Air Force Test Range?

That’s why more than 41,000 businesses on the Atlantic coast have expressed opposition to drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, and that’s why NASA doesn’t want drilling anywhere near the Kennedy Space Center, and that’s why the Department of Defense has said time and time again that we should protect and extend the moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf. Bipartisan, Senator Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida, and I in 2006 passed a moratorium for the eastern Gulf of Mexico off of Florida because of the military as well as all of the environmental things that I’ve talked about.

The Air Force just at the end of last year came to us, wants to put $60 million of new improvements for exquisite telemetry as we are testing some of our most sophisticated weapons systems in the Gulf Testing Range. That’s the Gulf of Mexico off of Florida. But they don’t want to make that investment of $60 million to upgrade all of the telemetry unless they have the assurance that it’s going to be off limits to oil drilling, not just until 2022 which is in the law, but they want it extended another five years until 2027.

And yet we cannot get it up. This senator tried to get it into the defense bill, an appropriate place that the senator who is the presiding officer serves on that distinguished committee led by John McCain, the Armed Services Committee. We couldn’t get it up because of oil interest not wanting to give the Air Force the security that their $60 million investment on advanced telemetry would be protected for not five years from now but ten years from now.

The only reason itself the administration wants to spend time writing a new one is because the oil industry wants them to open up a whole lot more acreage to drilling, not just in the gulf. They want the entire outer continental shelf of the United States. On the west coast and from New Jersey, south, as you come down the state, including the ones I already mentioned in the southeastern United States. Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida.

I don’t think that we should expose even one acre of federal waters to drilling until we’ve got strong safety standards in place to protect another spill, to protect the workers that lost their lives from ever happening again, to protect the environment, to protect the coastal economies that are so dependent on the beautiful beaches, and to protect the national security interest in our testing and training ranges.

It took six years to finalize these rules, and now in a matter of 30 days, comments are out there to undo these rules. That shouldn’t happen. So will other voices in the Senate speak up? It’s happening right underneath our noses.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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