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Gulf environmental group’s lawsuit claims waivers for offshore oil drillers are unsafe, illegal

Eddie Burkhalter

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An environmental advocacy group on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration claiming the government is allowing offshore oil drillers to skip critical safety tests put in place to prevent another event like the deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit legal advocacy group Democracy Forward filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of the Interior, the department’s secretary, David Bernhardt, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and director, Scott Angelle. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Healthy Gulf, a Louisiana nonprofit environmental group that advocates for the protection of the Gulf of Mexico. 

The suit alleges that Angelle “secretly and unlawfully” amended rules put in place after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster that allow oil companies to skip critical safety tests of “blowout preventers” through the use of waivers, which don’t receive public scrutiny and are handled out-of-sight at a rate of “at least one per day.” 

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and ultimately dumping more than 3.2 million barrels of oil into the gulf, killing marine life and fouling coastlines along Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. 

The rig’s blowout preventer, a safety device designed to stop the unintended release of natural gas and oil, had last been inspected in 2005, and had been damaged in a previously unreported incident. Inspectors say the preventer failed to properly engage which resulted in the explosion. Other problems with the rig also contributed to the disaster, safety review’s discovered. 

“By returning the regulation of blowout preventers to the pre-Deepwater Horizon status quo, Defendants have substantially increased the chances of a catastrophic oil spill in United States coastal waters and, in turn, the chances of irreparable damage to the natural resources upon which Plaintiff’s members rely,” the complaint states. 

The Obama administration instituted what’s called the Well Control Rule in April 2016, that put into place dozens of requirements meant to safeguard against another blowout disaster, through rules for “the design, installation, and testing of the blowout preventers…” according to the complaint. 

Offshore drilling companies opposed major portions of those rules, however,  and in May 2017, Trump’s administration nullified several of the Obama-era safety measures. Still, oil companies are requesting, and being given, waivers that allow them to operate without meeting some of the new safety rules. 

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The lawsuit alleges that the Department of the Interior has used the Well Control Rule’s provisions for “case-by-case, ad hoc exceptions from its requirements in order to grant hundreds (and likely thousands) of waivers to offshore operators seeking to avoid the Rule’s blowout preventer requirements, particularly those requirements relating to the testing of blowout preventers, which are designed to ensure that blowout preventer systems will work properly in the event of an emergency.” 

Emails obtained by Politico through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Trump administration sought to circumvent those safety rules through the use of waivers, according to the news outlet on Tuesday.   

“While we have discussed the possibility of promulgating a rule that further delays the implementation of the dates of the yet to be effective dates of several provisions of the [Well Control Rule] we are revisiting the entire [rule], please advise the possibility of avoiding that by considering evaluation of departure request of the proposed April 2018 rule,” BSEE Director Scott Angelle wrote in a September 2017, email, according to Politico.  

Politico’s article also stated that staff urged Angelle to put those directives into writing, but that it’s unclear if the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has done so. 

According to Politico’s Ben Lefebvre, more than a third of the 1,679 waivers granted during the first 20 months after the new rules went into effect allowed companies to forgo regulations that required tests of blowout preventers. 

Cynthia Sarthou, director of Healthy Gulf, told APR on Thursday that prior to the BP disaster, the BSEE was lax in its regulation of offshore drilling, largely following the industry’s lead on safety measures. 

“We saw the results on our lives and our livelihoods of what an oil disaster really looks like in the Gulf of Mexico,” Sarthou said. “And that if you’re going to pursue this industry in the Gulf of Mexico you need to be held to account for compliance with safety regulations that protect workers, and protect the environment, which in turn, protects our economy.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity the Deepwater Horizon disaster “likely harmed or killed about 82,000 birds of 102 species; about 6,165 sea turtles; as many as 25,900 marine mammals; and a vast (but unknown) number of fish.” 

The BP disaster was an environmental one, to be sure, but it was also an economic disaster for the many people who relied on the Gulf to make their living, Sarthou said. After years of litigation, BP will pay $65 billion toward the cleanup, but thousands of people lost their jobs. 

The BP disaster cost the Gulf of Mexico’s fishing industry between $94.7 million and $1.6 billion and between 740 and 9,315 people lost their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.  

Sarthou said it’s also not clear if companies are being scrutinized for past safety violations, or would be able to afford to pay for a disaster like BP’s, before being given waivers, because the agency hasn’t made clear the process it’s using and it’s not naming the companies. 

In an emailed statement to APR on Friday, U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) spokesperson Nick Goodwin wrote, “The lawsuit grossly misrepresents the facts and issues false accusations that challenge a nonexistent ‘Waiver Rule.’ Contrary to these fabricated allegations, BSEE has not waived requirements nor granted exemptions to the regulations regarding either the 2016 or the 2019 Well Control Rule.”

That blanket denial from the DOI to APR seemed to run counter to previous in-depth reporting by Politico and even statements from Republican lawmakers who expressed support for the agency’s loosening of regulations.

Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., told Politico in March that worries from Democrats over the waiver issuances were “misguided” and that “BSEE having to provide nearly 1,700 waivers to the well control rule is clear evidence the rule imposes unrealistic requirements and that waivers are necessary to remedy the issues the rules cause.”

Responding to APR’s followup questions to Goodwin to reconcile his earlier statement, that the BSEE has issued no waivers, Goodwin forwarded to APR a letter written to the chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources by Lars Herbst, regional director of the BSEE’s Gulf of Mexico Bureau on March 6, 2019.

In the letter Herbst states that previous press coverage of the matter contained “inaccuracies” and wrote that the BSEE had issued no “waivers” but instead had approved the use of “alternate procedures or equipment (sometimes informally referred to as “alternate compliance”)” which is allowed by federal regulations. He also wrote that the engineering review process for granting such “alternate compliances” hadn’t changed from the previous administration. 

Asked to clarify what appeared to be a purposefully misleading statement and a mincing of words between “waiver” and “alternate compliance” Goodwin replied to APR that he “couldn’t disagree more. The letter clearly explains the coverage has been misleading on this, and the statement speaks for itself in response to the lawsuit.”

Goodwin also pointed to a section of the preamble to the final Well Control Rule that states the BSEE can grant the use of “alternate procedures or equipment” if a company “provide sufficient justification” and “provide a level of safety and environmental protection that equals or surpasses current requirements.” 

Further into that same preamble, however, it states that the BSEE doesn’t set specific requirements for justifying the need for “alternate compliances” and doesn’t require companies to demonstrate it can achieve the same level of safety and environmental protection.  (APR  bolded wording for emphasis)

“With respect to requests for departures from operating requirements, BSEE does not specify the type of justification required because doing so could unnecessarily limit the submission of supporting documentation that could be pertinent under the various circumstances that might arise. Moreover, even though existing § 250.409 and proposed § 250.702 do not expressly require an operator seeking a departure to demonstrate that the operator can still achieve the same level of safety and environmental protection required by the rules, BSEE expects that any request for departure will include appropriate measures to ensure safety and environmental protection.”

Charisma Troiano, spokeswoman for Democracy Forward, in a statement to APR Friday regarding DOI’s responses wrote that “DOI is trying to talk its way out of documented proof that a political appointee looked for ways to delay blowout preventer requirements, and against that backdrop the agency approved hundreds of waivers to these safety rules when asked by the offshore drilling industry.”

The oil industry promptly pushed back against the new regulations when they took effect, saying the cost to implement the changes was too high and they wouldn’t make offshore drilling any safer.  

“At a time when the entire oil and natural gas industry is facing a historic downturn regarding prices, the last thing we need is new regulations that further stifle development,” Louisiana Oil and Gas Association spokesman Ragan Dickens told the Baton Rouge Business Report in 2016.

The BSEE itself at the time cited the agency’s own economic study that found the changes would save those companies money, according to the Business Report.  

“The estimated overall cost of the rule (outside those costs that are part of the economic baseline) over 10 years will be exceeded by the time-savings benefits to the industry resulting from the revisions to the former requirements for [blowout preventer] pressure testing frequency for workovers and decommissionings,” reads the BSEE’s final rule. “In addition, the final rule will also produce benefits to society, both quantifiable and unquantifiable, by reducing the probability of well control incidents involving oil spills.”

If those companies are truly worried about their bottom lines, Sarthou said they should consider the cost of not following the rules. 

“There are many companies in the Gulf that do not have a net worth of $60 billion,” Sarthou said. Another disaster by a company without BP’s deep pockets could leave that cleanup bill to taxpayers, she said. 

“It’s something that affected millions of people, and It could still affect millions of people,” Sarthou said of the BP disaster and the possibility of future disasters. 

The offshore oil drillers are drilling deeper and deeper, she said, and the safety issues increase the further down they go. 

“So you would think it would be even more important that they be held to rigorous standards as they go into deeper waters,” she said. 

Drilling companies have tapped out the shallower reserves in the Gulf of Mexico and are heading into deeper waters, where operating is more difficult and more expensive, according to The Times-Picayune. 

In 2021, Chevron plans for the delivery a new “ultra deep water” and “ultra high pressure” oil rig in the Gulf through a contract with Transocean, the same company that built the Deepwater Horizon rig. 

Chevron has other ultra deep water projects around the world, but the company’s new rig in the Gulf would be the first “ultra-high pressure” oil rig in the world to go online, according to the Wood Mackenzie. Such rigs would operate at pressures up to 20,000 psi. 

In June 2018, another ultra deep water oil project by BP off of Nova Scotia leaked 36,000 gallons of synthetic drilling mud. The Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board found the accident was the result of  “mechanical failure.”

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Economy

More than 70,000 people filed unemployment claims in Alabama last week

Chip Brownlee

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More than 70,000 people filed a jobless claim to receive unemployment compensation last week, the Alabama Department of Labor says. That number is about eight-times the number of claims filed the week before when layoffs began hitting the state.

Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson Tara Hutchison said Monday that some 74,056 people filed an initial jobless claim during the week that ended March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data.

More than 40,000 filed during the first four days of the week last week, with the number jumping past 70,000 by the end of the week.

About 9,500 people filed initial claims during the week ending March 21, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s data published last week. That was also a seven-fold increase compared to the week that ended March 14.

The number of people who filed a jobless claim last week is far more than at any point since at least 1987. The U.S. Department of Labor’s weekly unemployment claims data only goes back to 1987 for Alabama.

The Alabama Hospitality Association has estimated that some 225,000 hotel and restaurant workers will be laid off during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Economic Policy Institute’s conservative projections have estimated that nearly 200,000 people could lose their jobs in Alabama.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported on Friday that more than 3.28 million people across the country filed unemployment claims during the week ending March 21. That shattered the Great Recession’s peak of 665,000 in March of 2009, according to CNBC.

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In Alabama, you can apply for unemployment by phone or online. There have been issues with people having trouble getting through on the telephone system.

So many unemployment claims have been filed since businesses began laying off people because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Department of Labor has been having trouble accepting and processing the filings.

WSFA reported this week that some people have not been able to file.

To help alleviate the strain, the state has waived fees that are typically charged when an employer files for their employees.

To be eligible to file for unemployment insurance related to a COVID-19 layoff or firing, you must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Those who are quarantined by a medical professional or a government agency,
  • Those who are laid off or sent home without pay for an extended period by their employer due to COVID-19 concerns,
  • Those who are diagnosed with COVID-19,
  • Or, those who are caring for an immediate family member who is diagnosed with COVID-19.

Workers can file for benefits online at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382. Online filing is encouraged.

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Economy

UAH researchers and the world’s fastest supercomputer join the fight against the COVID-19 virus

Brandon Moseley

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More and more of Alabama’s brainpower is being redirected into fighting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Jerome Baudry is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Dr. Baudry and his lab are involved in a project that is using the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer to examine compounds to fight the virus that has already killed 34,807 people as of early Monday morning.

The compounds under review include drugs already available with safe profiles, as well as natural products. Compounds identified as possible future drugs will also be studied.

“We are at this point focusing on repurposing existing drugs,” Dr. Baudry said. “That is, to take existing drugs from the shelf and find which ones are active against either the virus itself or can help in treating or mitigating the effects of infection in the severe cases.”

Dr. Baudry said that about 30 researchers are involved in the project, and are working around the clock. The group is studying how the virus ticks, including how it expresses proteins, for clues on how to defeat it.

“We can use high performance computers and supercomputers to look at the entire genome of the virus, see everything the virus’ genome is making and build computational models of all these proteins, and repeat the repurposing process for each of these proteins,” Dr. Baudry said.

Scientists in the group are starting with some proteins on the surface of the virus in an attempt to prevent it from infecting human cells.

“We are also looking at some of the proteins that allow the virus to replicate itself when it is inside the human cell in order to block this process, a bit like for many anti-AIDS drugs,” Dr. Baudry explained. “But we will expand to pretty much everything in the virus’ genome that can be targeted by a drug.”

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s 200 petaflop supercomputer allows researchers unprecedented access to solving this and some of the world’s other most pressing challenges.

Researchers have a databases about virtually all existing drugs, natural products or molecules that may not have been tested yet as drugs. There are thousands of them. Then they build virtual models of these compounds using the laws of physics and chemistry to calculate their composition and arrive at a very detailed computational description.

“Then we look at the virus’ genome,” Dr. Baudry said. “We have to build models for all the virus’ proteins, again describing all the atoms, their properties, how they move together, etc.”

The supercomputers then compute how the atoms of a possible drug will interact with the atoms of the virus’ proteins.

“It’s like doing a test tube experiment to see if a possible drug will bind to the protein, except that we perform this in a virtual test tube using our computers,” Baudry explained.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones explained to the Alabama Political Reporter, “Researchers across Alabama are working around the clock to assess potential treatment for the novel COVID-19. The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and Dr. Baudry are using technology, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer, to examine compounds from safe, existing drugs as well as natural products. Repurposing existing drugs is a strategy that can expedite the process if a potential cure or treatment is found. The drugs are already on the shelf, why not test them to see if they can be useful? The high performance computers and supercomputers allow researchers to examine the entire genome of the virus and how it reacts. UAH’s latest announcement is another example of the brainpower we have in Alabama and our state’s commitment to combating this pandemic.”

UAB, Southern Research Institute, Hudson Alpha, and Alabama biotech firms are also working on finding drugs that will treat COVID-19 as well as hoping to develop a vaccine to prevent it.

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Economy

Alabama Credit Unions announce policy on coronavirus

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Credit Association says that Alabama’s credit unions have been working diligently to meet the financial needs of the states’ families and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

“On behalf of our credit union members, we want to share the following important information with you,” the Alabama Credit Union Association said in a statement.

The association said financial institutions are prepared and able to be a source of strength for the communities they serve, and money is safe in National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insured financial institutions.

“Not a penny of deposits insured by NCUA has ever been lost,” the ACUA assured depositors. “The safest place for our money is in an insured depository institution. Up to $250,000 is the basic amount covered by federal insurance for single amounts at any insured institution. Additional coverage may be available depending on the account type and structure.”

Greg McClellan is the administrator of the Alabama Credit Union Administration.

“The Alabama Credit Union Administration is continually communicating with credit unions to offer assistance during this pandemic,” said McClellan. “Credit unions are insured by the NCUA up to $250,000. Credit unions we have been in contact with have been striving to provide excellent service to their members, and we continue to provide assistance to them.”

State Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, is the chairman of the Alabama State Committee on Financial Institutions.

“In these uncertain times, it is great to see the Alabama Credit Union Association and their member credit unions stepping up to ensure Alabamans that their money is safe and secure,” Blackshear said. “I also want to thank all of Alabama’s credit unions for stepping up to help their members and communities as we adjust to the new normal in our great state.”

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Patrick La Pine is the CEO of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions.

“Alabama’s credit unions remain open and ready to serve their members during this difficult time,” said CEO La Pine. “Credit unions are integral parts of their communities – and they understand the challenges their members face. During this trying time, Alabama credit unions will continue to do what they’ve always done: help consumers, families, businesses and communities through their challenges. Credit unions are also doing everything possible to make sure their teams are safe while still offering personalized service.”

“As always, in Alabama, we pull together, we do the right things for the right reasons and we come out stronger at the end,” said State Senator Tom Whatley, R-Auburn. “Our credit unions are no exception. They understand what difficulties may lie ahead for their members, our constituents and they’re helping now, not later before it’s too late.”

“Many people across the state of Alabama rely on credit unions to handle their financial needs, and they should continue to feel confident in investing their money in NCAU-insured and backed credit unions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika. “Credit unions across the state are taking every proactive measure they can, in conjunction with the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and the Alabama Credit Union Association, to ensure they can meet the needs of all of their current and new members.”

More information on NCUA insurance coverage is available here.

The ACUA said that consumers and businesses should know “credit unions are working proactively with borrowers experiencing challenges in the current environment.”

“Each credit union is eager to work with you for a solution customized to your situation,” the association said. “Financial institutions have responded positively to all Gov. Kay Ivey’s and President Donald Trump’s directives. Furthermore, business continuity plans were already in place and are being exercised.”

The ACUA added, “Lobby access may be restricted at certain credit unions, but we’re open for business.” For more information about your institution, check your financial institution’s webpage or LSCU’s list of CU changes. “Drive-through service, when available at a branch, is open for transactions.”

Individual appointments for in-person meetings are being scheduled; while technology platforms give ready access to online services like bill pay, remote depositing of checks and ATMs for cash. You can also take advantage of the United States’ world-class payments system and use mobile payment channels and debit cards or credit cards to make purchases.

Many criminals are using the coronavirus to scam consumers. Be on guard for potential scams.

The Alabama Credit Union Association is an affiliate of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and represents credit unions in Alabama. The LSCU & Affiliates represents 333 credit unions in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, with a combined total assets of more than $120 billion and more than 10.3 million members. The LSCU provides advocacy and regulatory information; education and training; cooperative initiatives (including financial education outreach).

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Economy

Alabama jobless claims soar past 40,000 this week, breaking records

Chip Brownlee

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More than 40,000 people filed a jobless claim to receive unemployment compensation in the first four days of this week, the Alabama Department of Labor says, more than quadrupling the number of claims filed last week when layoffs began hitting the state.

Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson, Tara Hutchison, said Thursday that 40,628 people filed an initial jobless claim from Sunday to Wednesday, according to the department’s preliminary data.

About 9,500 people filed initial claims last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s data published this morning. That was a seven-fold increase compared to the week before when only 1,800 people filed an unemployment claim.

The number of people who filed a jobless claim in the first four days of this week is more than at any point since at least 1987. The U.S. Department of Labor’s weekly unemployment claims data only goes back to 1987 for Alabama.

So many unemployment claims have been filed since businesses began laying off people because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Department of Labor has been having increasing trouble accepting and processing the filings. WSFA reported this week that some people have not been able to file.

The Alabama Hospitality Association has estimated that some 225,000 hotel and restaurant workers will be laid off during COVID-19 crisis.

The Economic Policy Institute’s conservative projections have estimated that nearly 200,000 people could lose their jobs in Alabama.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that more than 3.28 million people across the country filed unemployment claims last week. That shattered the Great Recession’s peak of 665,000 in March of 2009, according to CNBC.

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Alabama’s total from the first three days of this week, which were not included in the U.S. Department of Labor’s numbers released today, are more than the entire month of March of 2009.

This story will be updated.

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