By Shiva Polefka
Yesterday, Saturday, April 20th, marked the third anniversary of the explosion aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and set off the largest accidental spill in the oil industry’s history. The ruptured Macondo well spewed nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil over the course of the summer, ultimately fouling more than 1,000 miles of Gulf of Mexico coastline and bringing the vast fishing and tourism industries of the region to a standstill, before the Macondo well was finally sealed and “killed” on September 19, 2010.
Following the Deepwater Horizon blowout, President Obama appointed a panel of experts that convened as the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Its final report, issued in January 2011, revealed the irresponsible practices of BP and its contractors, uncovered a lack of federal oversight, and provided a comprehensive set of policy reforms that would make the offshore energy industry safer.
Earlier this week, members of the Commission, now acting independently as a group called Oil Spill Commission Action (OSCA), released their second “Report Card” on the progress major actors were making to implement their recommendations.
So, three years after the catastrophe, what has changed? Have we acted on the painful lessons taught by Deepwater Horizon? Are government and industry leaders taking steps to reduce the risk of another destructive spill or blowout? The answers are decidedly mixed.
Department of the Interior and Industry
OSCA awarded the Obama administration a B, in recognition that the Department of the Interior has enacted some of the safety reforms recommended within the official report, and brought about a 15 percent increase in offshore rig inspections occurring in the Gulf.
OSCA gave the oil industry a B-, noting that it has voluntarily contributed in meaningful ways to the reduction of risk future oil spills in response to Deepwater Horizon, by implementing new safety standards and readying four oil well capping systems for the Gulf of Mexico like the one ultimately used to stanch the Macondo well’s blowout. Before Deepwater Horizon, no such systems existed.
OCSA was much harsher on Congress, and rightfully so, as the legislative branch has yet to pass a single law strengthening federal oversight of offshore oil and gas development. Congress did enact the RESTORE Act which allocates 80 percent of BP’s civil penalties to the affected Gulf Coast states, so they can apply it directly the environmental restoration and economic recovery. Enactment of this bill was enough to boost Congress’ grade from a D in 2012 to a D+ this year.
As OSCA puts it, other than the RESTORE Act, Congress has done “nothing about the many other critical issues the Commission identified to improve safety and environmental protection.” A year ago, my colleagues at the Center for American Progress highlighted the need for Congress to raise the absurdly low $75 million limit on spill liability that oil companies currently face. While BP voluntarily excluded itself from the cap, the cleanup cost for Deepwater Horizon to date stands at over $14 billion, demonstrating starkly the fiscal as well as environmental risk to the American public from Congressional inaction.
Similarly, Congress has refused to codify any new safety standards for offshore drilling. As a result, the gains made through Obama administration rulemaking, and voluntary industry efforts, could easily be easily lost to the whims of the next administration.
Federal courts continue their slow progress toward meting out justice for the full array of criminal and civil violations committed by BP and its contractors. In November 2012 the Justice Department secured a $4.5 billion settlement in the criminal case against BP, the largest criminal penalty in history. The company also pled guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter as well as additional charges of lying to Congress and other environmental violations.
BP’s separate, and much larger civil trial for Clean Water Act violations has already lasted more than two months, and is expected to continue well into the fall. In line with the unprecedented size of the spill, BP faces additional, record-setting fines that could reach as high as $17 billion if Federal District Court Judge Carl Barbier agrees with prosecutors that BP was grossly negligent in the disaster.
Despite the mobilization of tens of thousands of workers and volunteers and thousands of public and privately owned vessels to assist with oil clean up, direct impacts to the Gulf Coast’s fisheries, beaches, wetlands and seabed corals were severe and widespread.
Three years later, the Gulf Coast faces a rising specter of persistent, long term impacts from the BP blowout similar to those affecting the marine environment in Valdez, Alaska, where the once robust herring fishery has yet to recover from Exxon’s 1989 spill. Gulf of Mexico fisherman and scientists have reported bizarre, unprecedented mutations of shrimp and crabs, and they continue to catch fish from the spill area with large lesions and organ failure. And while still not conclusively linked to the BP spill, the National Wildlife Federation recently reported that mortality in marine mammals and sea turtles in the region is occurring at rates multiple times higher than historical averages.
Recent studies have provided at least one clue for the ongoing effects. Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that the chemical oil dispersant Corexit 9500A becomes extremely toxic to marine organisms when mixed with crude oil. BP dumped at least 1.8 million gallons of Corexit into the Gulf in an attempt to mitigate the impacts of the spill, including the unprecedented practice of injecting the fluid directly into the oil spewing from the ruptured well.
The Gulf Coast’s valuable wetlands also continue to suffer from the disaster. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune recently reported, the oil spill greatly weakened wetlands in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. When Hurricane Isaac hit in 2012, “large swaths” of these normally storm-resilient habitats were obliterated and have yet to return. Because wetlands provide nurseries for fisheries, buffer coastal communities from storm surge, and stabilize coastlines by preventing erosion, this loss represents the destruction of green infrastructure that underpins Gulf Coast communities and businesses. Until BP and its contractors fund the restoration of these ecosystems, their absence will continue to exact a financial toll from Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states.
In a recent pro-drilling opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, the editorial board took measure of the offshore oil industry in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill. The Obama administration’s “toughened” drilling regulations, they say, “have amounted to little more than a speed bump for the energy industry,” which today is “booming in the Gulf of Mexico.” That observation belies claims from some in Congress that the more rigorous safety controls—aimed at averting the next environmental catastrophe — will cause undo harm to the oil companies or coastal economies.
Alternatively, it could suggest that the federal response so far has simply been too weak to substantially alter industry practices.
Three years on, governmental leaders must keep in mind the grave costs that all parties affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster continue to pay, and do all they can to prevent another spill. The evidence suggests that continued inaction from Congress — while perhaps their easiest option politically — could be the riskiest, most expensive choice they can make.
Shiva Polefka is a research associate with CAP’s Ocean Program.