New Lawsuit Fights Oil Spill Amnesia

Today’s post is co-authored with my colleague Jamie Friedland. If we don’t learn from our catastrophic oil spills, we are doomed to repeat them.  That’s why on Monday, NRDC and a coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit pressing the Obama administration to learn from the mistakes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  The suit challenges Lease Sale 216/222, a new round of offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, planned by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). 

This lease sale is in the Mississippi Canyon, ground zero for Deepwater Horizon.  You’d think the oil spill would’ve been on their minds, but the environmental impact statement for the sale boldly ignored the spill’s catastrophic effects on wildlife.  Instead, it relied on incomplete information from before the BP spill, in clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).   

It is dangerously wishful thinking to believe that Gulf ecosystems and fisheries still reeling from the oily onslaught two years ago could withstand a second avoidable ecological disaster.  For example, as my colleague Michael Jasny has documented, coastal dolphin populations have been decimated.  The survivors are “severely ill” and, instead of recovering, are still undergoing an unprecedented die-off.  But as far as BOEM is concerned, nothing has changed. 

To ignore this reality and “evaluate” potential environmental impacts as if the Gulf were pristine defies logic.  Yet this voluntary amnesia appears to be an official position.  The new round of leases includes treacherous deepwater sites in the exact same area and conditions of the first Deepwater Horizon spill, and would allow the same reckless drilling to resume – without new and fully-tested procedures in place to guard against future blowouts and improve post-spill containment.  As I’ve written before, the new underwater containment systems the oil industry and BOEM are relying on have not been tested at the depth and pressure of deepwater wells.  What works on paper does not always work at depth.  The rest of the country learned that lesson watching the “junk shot” and “top hat” fail two years ago.  Even the design flaw identified in the Cameron-style blowout preventers still exists in most oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico today. 

Our challenge this week addresses a drilling as usual mentality our government continues to apply to the Gulf as though BP’s 200 million gallon spill never happened.  This lawsuit joins NRDC’s  suit in December 2011, seeking the same common sense environmental review for Lease Sale 218, the first lease sale after the drilling moratorium was lifted.  A third suit in June 2010 sought to combat the use of seismic surveys in the Gulf.  This oil exploration technique uses arrays of air guns to blast the water with sonic pulses billions of times more intense than noise levels known to compromise the feeding, breeding, and basic communication of endangered whales in the area.  The Gulf of Mexico is under assault, and we must stand up for the region’s wildlife and coastal communities.

Washington has too quickly forgotten, but many of us still remember what happened in the Gulf.  NRDC President Frances Beinecke served on the presidentially appointed commission investigating the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.  Their investigation uncovered serious flaws in oil industry and regulatory practices.  These accidents-waiting-to-happen remain unaddressed, with the Gulf’s battered ecosystems and vital billion-dollar tourism and fisheries hanging in the balance.  If drilling is to continue, more must be done to improve drilling safety and safeguard our natural resources.  The largest oil spill in America’s history should have been a wakeup call.  If we refuse to learn from that mistake, it will become a recurring nightmare instead.