EDITORIAL: Will oil and gas industry shoulder responsibilities as regulations falter?

Here in America, we talk plenty of learning from history but show very little evidence of it.

Exhibit A: The Trump administration’s decision to relax regulations designed to prevent a repeat of the horrendous BP Deepwater Horizon oil-platform explosion that left 11 workers dead, released 4 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killed a million sea birds and more than 150 whales and dolphins and devastated coastal tourism and fishing industries.

Apparently, the stunning success of the U.S. oil and gas industry in recent years and our current dominance in the global market aren’t enough to maintain safety measures that might deter a rerun of what flattened Texans and the world in 2010 — and should have taught all a sobering lesson for decades. Trump administration officials are instead unnecessarily rolling the dice, reducing burdens on the fossil-fuel industry to ensure continued energy dominance. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says revised rules incorporate “the best available science, best practices and technological innovations.”

Funny thing about “best practices.” As Nancy Leveson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted when relaxing the rules was first proposed: Best practices are little more than recommendations, not requirements, and the rules then proposed “are filled with ‘should’ instead of ‘must.’” Among the regulations being scrapped: those insisting safety and pollution prevention equipment be inspected by independent auditors and assurance that equipment function in extreme weather, a factor in the BP catastrophe.

During a 2011 Trib Q&A with newly elected Republican Congressman Bill Flores, an oil and gas industry veteran, he insisted few operators had such low safety cultures as BP. “But most of the industry has it right. I think we’ve fixed most of those problems. And in case there is a disaster, we have the Marine Well Containment Company that has been set up as an industry-funded solution. You have a massive amount of assets that can be out there to contain and capture (the spread of oil). It’s brand new. They’ve even built a variety of caps that can cap almost any well out there.”

Ironically, last week the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation-funded Respect Big Bend Coalition introduced its maiden efforts to collaborate with oil and gas companies to ensure the West Texas oil boom doesn’t despoil the rugged beauty of Texas’ Big Bend and imperil critical water sources. Coalition official Marilu Hastings reminded news media that the oil and gas industry is not a monolith — that there are major exploration companies as well as small-scale independent drillers. Not all may collaborate meaningfully or at all.

Yes, as former state Sen. Kip Averitt, chairman of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, then observed: Most oil and gas companies recognize the financial perils and public relations risks behind a major catastrophe and seek to be seen as good neighbors. What makes us nervous: operators rolling the dice as casually as the Trump administration does with our fragile environment and ecosystem.

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