Five years later, five key lessons from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster

By Marissa Knodel, climate change campaigner

1. The BP Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill was not a one-off accident, but a predictable disaster.

The Deepwater Horizon incident happened when a “fail-safe” blowout preventer failed on the Macondo Well. Yet, if we view Deepwater Horizon as a technological problem caused merely by a failed cement casing and blowout preventer, all we’ll get is technological fixes. The reality is that the disaster was the result of institutional and organizational failures of the government and oil industry to govern oil and gas activities and respond when accidents occur. The Minerals Management Service approved BP’s exploration plan despite serious flaws that downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic spill, and its own environmental assessment of the area leased to BP and other energy companies stated that the potential impacts of oil spills and blowouts on wetlands, marine mammals, commercial fishing, economy, and water quality were not expected to cause significant damage. Federal investigations following Deepwater Horizon revealed numerous conflicts of interest between the Minerals Management Service and the oil and gas industry it was supposed to regulate. Given the pervasive culture of limited oversight for offshore oil and gas activities in exchange for cash bonuses and employment, Deepwater Horizon was a disaster waiting to happen.

2. Full restoration and recovery after an oil spill is a fallacy.

There was and remains much controversy over how much oil was spilled, where it went, and how much remains in the Gulf. A federal government study concluded that only one quarter of the oil spilled remains in the environment and that the rest was either removed, evaporated, dissolved, or chemically dispersed. In comparison, an independent study by estimates that around 44 percent of the oil released during the spill remains underwater. In 2015, an investigation funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences found that 2–16 percent of the total oil spilled, about 2 million barrels, remains in a ring at the bottom of the Gulf, covering an area of 1,250 square miles.

Tar balls such as these continue to wash ashore years after the disaster. Photo: NWR, Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, BP continues to claim that the majority of impacts occurred immediately after the spill and that the Gulf is experiencing a “strong recovery.” That may be true for BP’s stock price and the oil and gas industry, which have seen a rise in the number of permits for deepwater drilling from 14 in 2010 to 603 in 2014, accompanied by a projected peak in production in 2016. But the fishermen and wildlife of the Gulf Coast have a different reality. Many Gulf Coast fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the oysters, shrimp and fish harvested from Gulf report that catches are still down by as much as a third, and some face the prospect of losing their homes due to financial hardship. A new report from the National Wildlife Federation found that wildlife species continue to suffer from deaths, low birth rates, and abnormal development due to residual oil and chemical dispersant compounds.

3. New safety regulations will not resolve the causes or mitigate the consequences of the oil disaster.

On April 13, 2015, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement released proposed well control regulations for offshore oil and gas development. The proposal includes improvements for blowout preventer technologies and reliability, well design and control, spill containment and real-time well monitoring. This proposal is the fourth in a series of rules aimed at improving the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling. Despite all these new safety regulations, a 2014 report by the Chemical Safety Board warned that another similar catastrophic accident is possible, especially if the operational and organizational factors that contributed to the accident are not addressed.

A ship pulling a boom, surrounded by oil from the Deepwater Horizon. Image: Flickr/kris krug, Creative Commons

4. There is no such thing as safe and responsible offshore oil and gas development.

Not only was this disaster the largest oil spill and one of the worst environmental catastrophes in U.S. history, it was also a consequence of the unmitigated pursuit of oil and gas to satiate the industry’s appetite for profit. This disaster occurred in one of the world’s greatest concentration of offshore oil and gas operations, with access to a lot of equipment and personnel — Deepwater Horizon required 9700 vessels, 127 aircraft, 47829 people, and nearly 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants — yet, oil gushed from the well for 86 days. Any thought of drilling in a more remote, difficult, and dangerous environment — say, the Arctic, for example — should give the federal government pause. The fact that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management gave Shell the green light to explore and drill for oil in the American Arctic Ocean despite admitting there is a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill is a betrayal of its duty to safeguard the public interest and reveals its false belief that its mandate includes extracting every single drop of oil until it’s gone.

5. To keep oil out of the environment and avoid serious, irreversible climate disruption, offshore oil and gas must be kept in the ground.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell claims that the 2017–2022 draft proposed program for offshore drilling is “balanced” in that it makes available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered recoverable resources on the Outer Continental Shelf, while reserving less than 8 percent of the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf (9.8 million acres). Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Hopper similarly bragged that the draft proposed program would open up 317 million acres of coastline to oil and gas drilling, which proves that the Obama administration remains committed to offshore oil and gas development as part of its “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

Map of draft proposed drilling areas. Image: BOEM

An important Nature study revealed that in order to have a greater than 50 percent chance of avoiding climate catastrophe, 80 percent of the world’s remaining fossil fuels must remain in the ground, which completely excludes any oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean. The reality is that more fossil fuels exist than we can burn, and the more we take out of the ground, the greater the risk of irreversible climate catastrophe. The lesson the Obama administration should have learned from Deepwater Horizon is that only way to keep oil out of our environment and carbon emissions out of our atmosphere is to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.