Four years ago this weekend, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and sending 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. I flew over the site after the blowout and was stunned by the vast reach of the oil and the enormous scale of the response effort. Yet even with all the emergency vessels on site, it took 87 days to cap the well. The oil industry was woefully unprepared, and in my view, still is.
Not much has changed since then. Yet the industry is poised to enter even more forbidding waters. Shell Oil is pushing to drill in the Arctic Ocean, and its early attempts have been marked by failed emergency equipment and a drill rig grounded in a storm.
It’s time to learn from America’s experience with devastating spills. We must protect pristine places like the Arctic Ocean from drilling, have adequate safeguards in place in all areas to be drilled, and hold the oil industry accountable to a higher standard. And we must demand action now, as NRDC Trustee Robert Redford says in a powerful new video.
Four years have passed since the BP disaster, and the industry has still not fixed technical problems with faulty blowout preventers. Nor has it made major improvements in containment booms—the exact same technology the industry used 25 years ago in the Exxon Valdez spill. These booms managed to pick up just 3 percent of oil spilled in the Gulf. And they have never been proven effective in an Arctic environment covered in ice, fog, and gales most of the year.
Congress could drive progress with better safety standards, but it has failed to act. I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, and we issued recommendations for how to prevent future oil disasters. I expected a swift response. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress passed the pivotal Oil Pollution Act and generated important progress in tanker safety. Yet Congress hasn’t passed a single law since the Gulf spill to rein in an industry known for reckless operations and resistance to oversight.
Without stronger protections, our coastal waters remain vulnerable to oil’s long shadow. Since the BP disaster, dolphins in the Gulf have suffered lung problems, tuna have experienced heart damage, and oiled coastal marshes have eroded. Scientists studying Prince William Sound say oil is still present from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. A recent study concluded the region’s harlequin duck and otter populations have rebounded—but it took 24 years. The Pacific herring fishery has still not recovered.
We must not expose the Arctic Ocean—and polar bears and whales—to the same dangers, and we must not risk Alaska Native coastal communities. Instead, we must apply the lessons of past oil disasters, we must put the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling, and we must demand the clean energy solutions that will help stabilize the climate and create a more sustainable future.