Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
Page added on April 10, 2017
US President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating the US Chemical Safety Board, a somewhat obscure agency that has angered so many groups over the years that no one is likely to leap to its defense.
The group is an independent government agency, much like the National Transportation Safety Board. While the NTSB investigates plane accidents and train derailments, the CSB probes refinery explosions and chemical accidents.
In 2010, it launched its own investigation of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. It also issued high-profile reports on the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion as well as a fire at a Chevron refinery in California in 2012.
In Trump’s broad budget blueprint (details coming in May), the CSB is lumped in the same category of defunded groups such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
But while public broadcasting, the arts and scholars all have constituencies willing to raise a fuss, the CSB, in its zeal to pin blame for disasters at industrial facilities, has made very few friends.
Take Deepwater Horizon, for instance. The CSB was asked to investigate the disaster at the site of BP’s Macondo deepwater well by Congress. Right from the start, it was an unwelcome participant, alongside more mainstream investigations by government regulatory agencies, BP and other companies, and a special presidential commission.
It pressed for independent access to the blowout preventer — the massive structure that sat atop the well and was supposed to snap shut, preventing explosive gases from reaching the surface. Everyone wanted to know why the BOP failed and the CSB wanted the freedom to conduct its own investigation.
For its refusal to play nice with other concurrent investigations, the CSB was hauled into court by Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, and was fought by the Interior Department, which challenged its authority to extends its jurisdiction offshore.
No one escaped scrutiny from the CSB, which found enough blame to go around.
The group concluded that the offshore exploration industry had placed too much emphasis on personal safety-preventing falls, cuts and similar accidents-overlooked the need for safer drilling technology and techniques.
The finding that companies need to adopt a “safety culture” — a hallmark of the investigation into the Texas City refinery explosion — would ultimately be adopted by the mainstream investigations.
After winning partial independent access to the BOP, and winning a court fight over its offshore jurisdiction, the CSB posited a unique theory about the cause of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Other investigations concluded that the failure of the BOP to cleanly cut the drill pipe and seal the out-of-control well was an isolated incident, the result of a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances.
But the CSB said that a force known as “effective compression” buckled the drill pipe, pushing it off center. The phenomenon was not a one-off, but could happen again with other BOPs, the CSB concluded.
That conclusion has yet to gain traction. But a new federal drilling safety rule did include a a requirement that BOPs be able to center drill pipe in order to get a clean shear.
The group’s budget is tiny — about $12 million. But in the current atmosphere of reducing the regulatory burden on businesses and a need to follow through on campaign pledges to reduce spending, the CSB is in real danger of elimination.
Labor unions have spoken out against the proposed cut. But big labor doesn’t have the same clout under a Republican administration that has vowed to boost the US business climate.
Presidential budgets are notoriously ambiguous and rarely does every proposed cut or new program make it through Congress. Cutting federal funds for PBS, for instance, has been proposed before, to no avail. Same for public radio.
But the fiercely independent history of the CSB makes it vulnerable. And the push to reduce costly regulations, or even repeal some rules adopted during the Obama administration, could mean that some portion of the rules aimed at improving offshore safety are also at risk.