Most Americans didn’t pay a lot of attention to offshore oil drilling before April 20, 2010. Indeed, it had been less than two years since a Republican National Convention crowd in Minneapolis had erupted in a chant of “drill, baby, drill!” — reflecting a public mood of wanting cheaper prices at the gas pump and not particularly caring where the oil came from.
After all, it had been nearly 40 years, at that point, since the large oil spill from an offshore rig near Santa Barbara, California, had made headlines with pictures of working trying to clean thick crude from agonized seabirds. In the decades since, many assumed that safety measures had tightened up and catastrophic oil spills were a thing of the past.
The April 2010 explosion, fire and — for a long time, anyway — unstoppable oil spill at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana changed everything. Eleven workers on the offshore drilling platform were killed. Over the ensuing months, more than 4 million barrels of oil spilled from the site before it could be capped.
The impact of the spill — on marine fisheries that still haven’t recovered, on wildlife and the Gulf’s endangered wetlands, and on the many cleanup workers sickened by the oil and a toxic chemical meant to make it disappear — has been incalculable. In the months after the disaster, BP spend untold millions of dollars on advertising and other PR meant to convince Americans that fossil fuels and offshore drilling are safe.
There’s new evidence that BP’s spin campaign didn’t work.
In a recent Washington Post article, a 44-year-old woman from the Florida Panhandle said the 2010 oil disaster was a game changer for her and her family. “I see what happens to the animals when we mess with the environment like that,” Bernadette Kyle said.
When Kyle thinks of offshore drilling, she recalls the oily sheen on the Gulf and the inability to eat seafood. “We were directly affected by the BP oil. It was so sad. We had a lot of students volunteer to clean the birds. I don’t think it’s worth the gamble.”
Kyle is not alone. Her comments accompanied a nationwide poll by the Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that a majority of Americans now oppose offshore drilling and would like to see energy exploration curtailed on federal lands. Not only is 53 percent of the public now against Deepwater Horizon-style drilling off the nation’s coastline, but the number who want to either decrease or remain at the same level is about eight in ten. Just 14 percent chose the “drill, baby, drill” option of expanding offshore exploration.
“My personal feeling is we do not hold businesses responsible when spills occur and other things happen,” Brian Nichols, a 51-year-old Republican in New Mexico, told the Post. He, too, said his views were influenced by BP’s negligence. “Until businesses [can] stand up and be responsible for things they do to the land, we should not allow them to drill.”
This is a sea change (no pun intended) in public opinion. Back in 2008 – when there was a brief but significant spike in prices at the gas station — a similar survey found that a whopping 75 percent of Americans supported increasing offshore drilling. Not only was that before BP, but it was before more of the public became convinced that climate change is an immediate crisis that calls for reduction of fossil-fuel use.
Regrettably, the United States also has a president in the Oval Office who is trying to move the country in the opposite direction. Donald Trump’s so-called “energy dominance” policy would — among other things — allow offshore drilling in as much as 95 percent of America’s outer continental shelf, the largest such expansion in U.S. history.
In fact, Trump’s policy is “drill, baby, drill” come to life. Not only would his administration increase offshore drilling, but — perhaps more critically — it has rolled back some of the safety regulations that were imposed after the BP oil spill that were specifically created to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again. The president has also overturned restrictions on drilling on federal lands and would allow energy exploration in pristine Alaska wilderness.
The good news here is that most of this agenda has been held up in the courts, partly due — in the case of offshore drilling — to resistance from both Democratic and Republican governors. Americans will also get a crack in 2020 at electing a new president who will take climate change and the threat of environmental disasters more seriously. It’s way past time for U.S. energy policy to reflect the will of the people.