4 years later, Obama and the feds risk another BP-sized catastrophe


Sunday will mark the 4th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which started the massive oil spill that has harmed the Gulf to this day. Anniversaries are a difficult thing. I can only imagine the pain that the family and friends of the 11 rig workers who were killed, not to mention the scores of Gulf cleanup workers who became ill, must feel this of year. At the same time, anniversaries are a moment for us to ponder what happened on April 20, 2010 — and whether we as a society are doing all that we can do to ensure it never happens again.

On the latter front, to say that I’ve been underwhelmed, and disappointed, at the official response to the BP spill would be an understatement. For one thing, it’s appalling that BP is ending its formal cleanup effort at a time when tar balls and tar mats continue to pound Gulf beaches and our fragile marshlands on a regular basis. What’s more, the government has already lifted its sanctions on BP, as if the whole mishap — including the part with the 5 million barrels of spilt oil — had never happened. In fact, the leasing of offshore tracks in the Gulf for extreme deep-sea drilling — the type of oil exploration that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster — is at an all-time high. It’s party like it’s 2009 for Big Oil.

So when you hear that oil drilling in the Gulf is back and bigger than ever, you’re probably also thinking to yourself that surely the federal agencies that regulate the oil industry — with or without the help of a concerned Congress — have taken the many lessons learned from the 2010 incident and implemented reforms to make sure that drilling is safe.

But that’s the greater tragedy here — no such thing happened. This week, the New York Times published a devastating op-ed from S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, a consultant at SEB Strategies who was director of the Minerals Management Service at the time of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and Jacqueline Savitz, who is vice president for U.S. Oceans at Oceana, an international conservation group. Here’s the money section:

One huge concern centers on the blowout preventers, which seal wells in blowouts and are the last line of defense for events like the one at Deepwater Horizon. It’s unfathomable that the administration has failed to act on the findings of the December 2011 report of the National Academy of Engineering, which gave us some very bad news about Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer.

Its massive cutting blades were supposed to slice through the drill pipe to stop the flow of gushing oil. But it turned out that these huge pieces of equipment were not adequately engineered to stop emergency blowouts in deep water.

The academy’s report was detailed and damning. Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer “was neither designed nor tested for the dynamic conditions that most likely existed at the time that attempts were made to recapture well control,” the report said. More troubling, the shortcomings of Deepwater’s equipment “may be present” at other deepwater drilling operations, the report said.

Administration officials promised an immediate response to the N.A.E. report, including regulations to set new standards for blowout preventers by the end of 2012. Today, 16 months after that deadline and four years after the blowout, we still have not seen even proposed rules. Deepwater drilling continues in the gulf. New leases are being offered by the government and sold to energy companies each year. Yet the N.A.E. report warned that a blowout in deep water may not be controllable with current technology.

I’m not sure which is more remarkable — the fact that nothing’s been done about the blowout preventers or that there’s been such little publicity about this failure to act. But it’s typical of the response, four years out. Our thirst for oil at a relatively cheap price has made American society numb to the potential risks. We need to wake up. Marking the 4-year anniversary of the BP spill is sad, but the idea of dealing with another massive spill so soon is simply unconscionable.

Read more about the end of BP’s formal cleanup effort here: http://www.wdsu.com/news/local-news/new-orleans/bp-shore-cleanup-after-gulf-oil-spill-ends-in-la/25512258#mid=18778073

Check out “The Deepwater Horizon Threat” from the New York Times, at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/17/opinion/the-deepwater-horizon-threat.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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