A ship pulling a boom, surrounded by oil from the Deepwater Horizon. Image: Flickr/kris krug, Creative Commons

At a meeting last week, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) announced that it would reverse its recommendation to institute whistleblower protections to workers on offshore oil rigs. This unfortunate turn will be bad for workers, destructive to the environment, and quite possibly even harmful to the energy industry.

The CSB is a small independent government agency charged with investigating chemical accidents. It mission is to find the root cause of such accidents and make recommendations to both private and public actors so they can institute policies to avoid future disasters. The CSB does not have the authority to make law or issue fines, but its thorough review of accidents and carefully considered recommendations are often implemented and always evaluated seriously.

The agency’s recommendation to implement whistleblower protections for offshore oil rig workers stemmed from one of the greatest environmental disasters of our era­­­­­­­­­­—the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill.  The blowout off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 workers and was the largest marine oil spill in history. Fishing and tourism, two of the region’s biggest industries, were devastated as the toxic water annihilated the area’s ecosystem. The spill killed hundred of baby dolphins and was ruinous for thousands of other species, has had disturbing health effects on humans, and was estimated to have cost the tourism industry $23 billion. By 2016, the price tag of the spill for BP was astonishing $62 billion.

Despite these seismic effects, the CSB has backed off calling for whistleblower protections. This is perplexing as in its thorough, four-part 2016 report it determined that:

“to manage a reporting program effectively, the operator must remove penalties for reporting safety issues.” It added that “as long as…potential sources of federal oversight fail to provide protection for whistleblowers or workers seeking to stop work in the offshore environment, offshore process safety suffers.” In its final recommendation section, it called on the Department of Interior to provide “Protections for workers participating in safety activities with a specific and effective process that workers can use to seek redress from retaliatory action,” with the goal of providing “a workplace free from fear that encourages discussion and resolution of safety issues and concerns.” The CSB also called for elected worker safety representatives to be able to issue work stoppages should (if and only if) important safety concerns were to arise.

The analysis above makes perfect sense. Indeed, there were widespread warning signs of problems with Deepwater Horizon before the deadly and disastrous explosion. But if workers don’t have the power or protection to call out disturbing risks and risk losing their job should they do so, than few if any will come forward. Even in its recantation this week, the CSB board said there is “unanimous agreement…that worker participation, effective ‘whistleblower’ protections, and stop work authority are vital in any safety management regime.” But now it says that it not should have addressed these recommendations to the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) for jurisdictional reasons. A dissenting board member, Rick Angler, noted however “have failed to make a convincing case that BSEE does not have statutory authority to enhance worker participation” and incorrectly claim that other agencies are better alternatives.

Merely two days after the CSB’s decision, the Keystone (land-based) pipeline was temporarily shut down after a disastrous oil spill. Whistleblowers are crucial for protecting against such economic and environmental catastrophes, and is truly unfortunate that the CSB has pulled its recommendation. While this sudden reversal does no favors for the CSB’s reputation as an impartial analyst, as always, it will be the victims of the next maritime oil spill who ultimately pay the price.