Barreling in the Wrong Direction, a Decade After Deepwater

Ten years ago, people all over the U.S. gasped in horror, glued to news broadcasts trained on the fallout from a massive oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
Deepwater Horizon was America’s worst environmental disaster, and it killed 11 people and injured 17. That unexpected, catastrophic gusher went uncapped for 87 days, billowing dirty clouds of black crude oil deep under the water and throughout the Gulf—coating more than 1.300 miles of beaches and wetlands with oil, harming and killing all sorts of marine wildlife and walloping the coastal economy and the region’s whole way of life.

You’d think an event that extreme would change the way we operate forever.

Clouds of smoke and fire emerge during a controlled burn in an effort to clean up oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Justin Stumberg/U.S. Navy

There was hope for that kind of change initially. The commission charged with investigating the disaster issued recommendations on how to prevent another nightmare like the Deepwater Horizon. The federal government, in fact, began putting some key safeguards in place. The Department of the Interior issued the Well Control Rule in 2016 to tighten oversight on the drilling and federal inspections process.
And the Obama administration reversed in part its own earlier proposal to expand Atlantic drilling. It later went further—permanently removing parts of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans from oil and gas leasing under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

Yet, from the get-go, the Trump administration has worked to unravel these new drilling protections—and expand the risks:

  • President Trump signed an executive order seeking to open large swaths of the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic to offshore drilling.
  • The Interior Department proposed to expand drilling off nearly every U.S. coastline in its 2018 Draft Proposed Five-Year Plan. The Trump Administration proposal would even include areas, like the Pacific coast and Eastern Gulf of Mexico, that have been off-limits to drilling for decades.
  • The National Marine Fisheries Service authorized five companies to conduct seismic airgun blasting that could harm marine mammals as they search for oil and gas deposits in huge expanses of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • And to top it all off, the Trump administration significantly weakened safety standards for offshore drilling last year, rolling back the Well Control Rule.
    It watered down commonsense protections around inspecting equipment such as blowout preventers and controlling offshore wells.

Thankfully, together with many partners, we are holding the Trump administration to account. A federal court rejected Trump’s attempt to overturn the Arctic and Atlantic leasing bans last year. It declared that the ocean areas previously withdrawn—a total of 128 million acres—remain fully protected from offshore leasing “unless and until” Congress revokes the protection. Shortly thereafter, the Trump administration indicated its Five-Year plan was on hold indefinitely. The Trump administration has appealed the ruling. NRDC and partners also sued to prevent the seismic testing, and asked a court to bar the blasting while the lawsuit proceeded, and those decisions are still pending.

Whether the administration halted its drilling program for political or legal reasons, its delay is a short-term victory worth celebrating, but we need to push the Trump administration to cancel, not just delay, its dangerous offshore leasing plan altogether.

Congress has taken some key steps to block the expansion of drilling. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed two pieces of legislation. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL)’s bill would permanently extend the moratorium on leasing in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC)’s bill would prevent the Department of the Interior from including drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in its five-year federal leasing plan.

The Senate should pass these measures without delay.

The government’s own data show that offshore drilling operations are inherently dangerous, even in the absence of a massive explosion or spill. And we know that leasing our ocean waters to polluters is unpopular: the majority of Americans do not want to expand dirty offshore oil and gas drilling and exploration. Nor do coastal states want to make this dangerous gamble. Governors, mayors, more than 300 cities and over 2,000 elected officials have formally opposed offshore drilling and exploration–along with tribal leaders, business owners, fishing organizations and others.

Our oceans have long been economic engines, fueling our coastal and regional economies and accounting for billions in annual revenue. We need to protect our oceans, not subject to another Deepwater Horizon-type disaster that puts tens of thousands of people out of jobs and causes billions in lost revenue.

Finally, there is simply no scenario in which it would be rational to expand our reliance on fossil fuels. In a climate crisis that already has the world reeling from wildfires, flooding, deadly heat waves and destructive hurricanes, we need to shift to cleaner, safer sources of energy that will offer sustainable jobs into the future without wreaking havoc on our oceans, wildlife and livelihoods.

We should mark this 10-year memorial by moving away from the dirty fossil fuels of the past once and for all. Tell President Trump and Interior Secretary Bernhardt to abandon their dangerous plan for offshore drilling. Tell them to heed the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

About the Authors

Valerie Cleland

Oceans Advocate, Nature Program

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