Gulf oil spill: Two years later, safety lessons ignored

In its rush to pump more oil, America is ignoring the key lesson of the Gulf oil spill two years ago. Complex drilling, wherever it occurs, comes with unknowable risks.

US Coast Guard/AP/File
In this 2010 file photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews spray water on the blazing remnants of BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. In the wake of spikes in gas prices, the dangers of offshore drilling have been largely forgotten.

In the two years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the United States has seen two spikes in gasoline prices that have pushed gas prices up and pushed environmental concerns down America's priority list.

The dangers of deepwater offshore drilling, which gripped the nation in the aftermath of the spill, have given way to political sniping over which presidential candidate can do the most to ease gasoline prices. As a result, the safety lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster – the most important legacy of America's largest offshore oil spill – are being ignored. And the risks of another energy-related disaster are rising.

None of this was apparent on the night of April 20, 2010, just shy of 10 p.m., when a blowout caused an explosion aboard the Deepwater drilling rig, 41 miles off the Louisiana coast. The fireball could be seen 35 miles away; 11 men lost their lives. In the three months that followed, more than 4.9 million barrels of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

The environmental fallout of that fateful night is still in contention, as studies charting the impact of the oil on the ecosystem continue to be released. Some have found that the Gulf’s ecosystem was surprisingly resilient; as unprecedented cleanup operations combined with the predominance of oil-eating microbes in the warm water mean that the Gulf is now largely free of oil. However, some individual species like marine mammals and sea turtles have been significantly harmed, and evidence continues to mount of damage to these species.

The other immediate concern – the economic impact on the region's fishing and tourist industries – proved to be significant, too, though not as harmful as originally feared. BP, the British oil company that had leased the Deepwater Horizon for its Macondo oil field,  put $20 billion in an escrow to fund pay for direct economic damages from the spill. To date, BP claims to have paid $8.3 billion in damages from that fund.

Ironically, the economic impact from the spill on the Gulf region was compounded by the policy response. Immediately after the spill, the Obama administration placed a six-month moratorium on new offshore drilling. That has since expired, and drilling has resumed, but not at the rate as before. Production of crude oil from the offshore region is more than 250,000 barrels per day (about 17 percent) less than production in March 2010. In a sign that it still may be some time before the industry fully comes back, exploration for new oil and new lease sales in the offshore region is still below pre-spill levels.

The spill has had very little lasting impact on broader energy policy, aside from nixing compromise legislation to address climate change. President Obama's bid to get Republican support for capping greenhouse gas emissions in exchange for expanded access to offshore oil production was impossible politically after the spill.

The biggest lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster involve safety. The National Commission’s report on the oil spill will ensure that the exact circumstances of the blowout do not happen again. However, in America's search to produce ever more fossil energy, it is opening itself up to environmental and safety problems of a different sort.

If the specific lessons of Deepwater prevent another similar disaster, its general warning still holds: Complex systems in difficult, extreme, and unpredictable environments increase the unknowable risk of catastrophic failures.

But the political debate is missing all this. GOP presidential candidates have spent months chiding the Obama administration for being “an anti-energy president."  Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has responded by touting the increase in domestic production of energy.

Indeed, onshore energy production – both from oil and natural gas – is undergoing a renaissance in the US. Since March 2010, total US field production of oil has increased from 5.5 million barrels per day to 6.1 million barrels per day, a 10 percent rise in only two years, even with the decrease in offshore production. Most of this new production is due to the perfecting of technology that allows the extraction of shale oil in places like the Bakken Field of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford Shale formation of Texas.

In addition, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency have each given a regulatory go-ahead to Royal Dutch Shell to drill exploratory wells for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the coast of northern Alaska this summer. The Arctic Ocean is a much more hostile environment than the Gulf of Mexico, but this drilling will be at a depth of only 110 to 125 feet – far less than the 5,000 foot depth at which Deepwater Horizon was drilling.

Unfortunately, in the heated political debate, much of the nuance needed for sensible policy is lacking. All energy exploration involves risk. Effective risk management is important in such extreme and complex systems like drilling in 5,000 feet of water, fracking apart shale rock, or in the Arctic.

The political debate on energy, however, has acted more like a pendulum: either too much regulation, followed by too little. So long as our political system promotes constantly expanding production, the risks of spills and other accidents increase along with it.

– Andrew Holland is a Washington-based expert on energy, climate change, and infrastructure policy and a Fellow for Energy and Environmental Security with the American Security Project.

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