What if another BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Happened Today?

Image removed.It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since the worst environmental disaster in US history:  the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill that claimed the lives of 11 drilling rig workers and polluted the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida with almost 5 million barrels of oil.  It’s hard to believe because in the Gulf of Mexico, two years later, it’s largely business as usual.

Unfortunately, after numerous investigations, Congressional hearings, and the finding of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (Oil Spill Commission) that the disaster’s “root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur,” the stage is set for a repeat performance.  If a similar disaster happened today, there’s no guarantee that we wouldn’t get the same result: oil covered beaches and wetlands, oil drenched birds and sea turtles, millions of gallons of toxic dispersants introduced into the environment and our food chain, a fishing industry struggling to survive, and a mass die off of dolphins.

“Trust us,” said the oil and gas industry before the BP disaster, “Our blowout preventers will work and we can clean up any spilled oil before it seriously impacts the environment.”  Today, the oil and gas industry continues to ask for our trust, even though the design flaw in the Cameron-style blowout preventers that was identified in the BOEMRE-commissioned technical report still exists, and even though the undersea containment systems that the industry and BOEM are relying on to cap a wild well quickly have not been tested at the depths and pressures of current and proposed deepwater wells.  The Helix system has been tested on a tabletop in Houston, but the tabletop was not under water. 

On the government side, while the Department of Interior  has embraced some significant reforms (for example, creating the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to enforce safety and environmental regulations ostensibly immune from pressures to expand oil and gas production and maximize government revenues), the government agency charged with overseeing oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), continues to make critical decisions on expanding oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico without site-specific analyses of the risks to the environment and human health.

While BOEM has dispensed with the “categorical exclusions” that applied to the environmental review of exploration plans, like the one BP was operating under, the agency’s environmental review is still superficial.  For example, while BOEM claims that it is doing “site-specific” environmental analyses (EA) for exploration plans, its EAs are virtually identical, failing to examine the unique geology and biology specific to drill sites and the impacts that drilling or an accident at the site could have on these specific resources.  EAs for drilling in depths varying from 850 feet to 8,200 feet and hundreds of miles apart are strikingly similar and nearly identical in all cases other than listing basic facts about the exploration plan such as the name of the drilling company and drilling location and depth.  The agency’s review contains no analysis of how different characteristics affect the potential environmental impacts or oil spill risk.  If the EAs were truly site-specific, the public and decision makers would be in a better position to weigh the risks from new oil and gas activities.

In addition, site-specific analyses for oil and gas activities should be informed by the new environmental and health baseline in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP disaster.  Unfortunately, for many areas this new baseline is still being determined by environmental and health experts.  While BOEM recognizes that the pre-spill biological surveys and assessments of the Gulf are now obsolete, it continues to rely on them while the new surveys and assessments are under way – approving oil and gas activities that may jeopardize the environment and human health.

One of many circumstances to be considered is danger to marine mammals in the Gulf.  For example, as my colleague Michael Jasny has written about the Gulf’s dolphin die-off, “[n]ever have the dolphins experienced a die-off that has lasted as long, involved as many animals, or afflicted as many calves.”  As many of these dolphins are from small, near-coastal, and potentially distinct populations, the status of the populations must be assessed in light of the die-off.  Only then can the public and decision makers properly weight the risk new oil and gas activities pose to species already ravaged by the BP disaster.

No one should be under the illusion that decisions on expanded oil and gas activities in the Gulf have been informed by an assessment of the Gulf’s post-BP environmental and health baseline or that the risks from another oil spill have been adequately weighed.  Nor should the public assume that it’s gotten any more guarantees on safety and containment from the oil and gas industry.