A federal judge in Louisiana said an oil-safety regulator must turn over internal memos, texts, chats and other communications as part of a lawsuit over the Trump administration’s rollback of a major rule passed in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The court sided with plaintiffs challenging the rollback, who argued that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement hadn’t submitted a complete record of its deliberations over the changes to the so-called Well Control Rule, including whether communications with industry or other outside entities had influenced its decisions.

The plaintiffs requested additional documents after The Wall Street Journal reported last year that some key details had been deleted from memos that make up the official administrative record of the rule change. The deletions were made at the behest of Scott Angelle, an ally of the Gulf Coast oil industry who ran BSEE in the Trump administration, the Journal reported, citing memo drafts and email correspondence.

A BSEE spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Angelle couldn’t immediately be reached.

Environmental groups sued BSEE in 2019 over the rollback of the well-control rule, under a statute called the Administrative Procedures Act, which provides for courts to review whether a federal rule change was arbitrary or capricious.

That review is supposed to be based on the “whole record” of the agency’s rule-making process, which the groups, including Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, said hadn’t been made public because of the deletions and Mr. Angelle’s refusal to request other rule changes in writing.

BSEE, in turn, argued that it was entitled to withhold certain records because they were “deliberative,” and largely refused to disclose whether other communications requested by the environmental groups even existed, court filings show.

Magistrate Judge Michael B. North of the Eastern District of Louisiana rejected the Trump administration’s argument in his order dated Wednesday.

“The Court finds that the administrative record lodged in this case is incomplete, because the materials referenced in the Wall Street Journal article and vaguely described by the Federal Defendants as ‘deliberative’ should have been included in the record in order for it to be considered ‘whole,’” Judge North wrote.

‘This ruling is a win for anyone who cares about government transparency.’

— Chris Eaton, attorney for Earthjustice

In addition to the decision memos mentioned in the Journal article, Judge North granted limited discovery to allow plaintiffs to examine whether Mr. Angelle and other BSEE officials used text messages and chat programs to discuss relevant matters, to review their communications with higher-ups in the Interior Department and to examine meeting records.

“Defendants’ caginess leaves the Court with little choice but to order limited discovery into these matters,” he wrote.

Chris Eaton, an attorney for Earthjustice, said: “This ruling is a win for anyone who cares about government transparency. It rightly rejects the government’s attempt to hide the ball…and its muzzling of its own experts who opposed these changes.”

One of the decision memos that was altered for the official record, the Journal reported, concerned “drilling margin”—the amount of pressure drillers are required to maintain while drilling a well to prevent blowouts. A surge of high pressure led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout and explosion in April 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing more than 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The memo at first said agency staff wanted to “keep proposed language as is,” but the industry pressured Mr. Angelle to eliminate the standard to give drillers greater flexibility, according to a cache of documents reviewed by the Journal.

The same memo said “BSEE does not agree with industry” on the effectiveness of a proposed alternative standard drafted by the American Petroleum Institute, an oil-industry lobbying group.

After Mr. Angelle weighed in, those lines were deleted from the official record, emails and revised documents show.

The plaintiffs are hoping that discovery will yield documents that show the agency ignored safety concerns in crafting their changes to the well-control rule and turn up evidence that the industry influenced the changes.

Write to Ted Mann at [email protected]

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