Seven years after Deepwater Horizon, and we haven’t learned much


It was seven years ago yesterday that BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and triggering an environmental catastrophe that in many ways has continued to this day. It is a moment I will never forget: I was in a small plane flying over the Gulf that next morning, watching the thick black plume of smoke with a mixture of shock and alarm. That soon gave way to disgust over the next few days as crude oil kept spewing from the damaged rig and as BP, aided by government officials, refused to level with the public about the extent of the spill. That crisis flowed directly into a legal challenge over the lack of protective gear that was given to clean-up workers. This website came about that spring of 2010 as I worked with allies in the environmental movement to chronicle the true extent of what was happening in the Gulf.

This is the first year, really, that the anniversary came without a flurry of news coverage. On the fifth anniversary and even somewhat last year, news outlets did a good job covering the lingering health effects that have plagued some of those clean-up workers whom we fought for, or how the certain varieties of seafood and some of Louisiana’s vital wetlands have never fully bounced back. Readers this year might assume that everything is back to normal. And one thing definitely has returned. There’s more offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico than ever before. And that includes the risky type of deepwater drilling that caused problems for BP in 2010:

It’s true that there were initial impacts from the actions that took place immediately after Deepwater Horizon. After placing a moratorium on new drilling permits, the number of rigs drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico plunged from roughly 30 in April to as low as four in September, and did not begin to recover until mid-2011 after the moratorium was fully lifted.

Meanwhile, applications for permits to drill new deepwater wells in the Gulf that were submitted in 2010 took more than 150 days on average to receive approval, a sharp increase from the typical range of 25 to 30 days in the years just prior to 2010. More importantly, the Department of Interior introduced a series of new safety and performance standards for offshore operations and equipment, particularly for blowout preventers, and made clear that applications would receive greater scrutiny going forward. This new review and approval process led to consistently longer approval wait times in the years following the accident. Between 2012 and 2016, Gulf deepwater operators waited 60 to 75 days to receive approval for new wells.

Long and arduous permit approval processes are among industry’s most commonly cited problems with environmental and safety regulation. They can add to business costs, which they argue reduces investment, economic activity, and output.

But we now know that, at least in the case of offshore drilling, increased regulation does not have to equal reduced production. Earlier this week, the Energy Informational Administration (EIA) released data showing that the industry is far from entering some kind of terminal decline or even plateauing. Crude oil production in the Gulf of Mexico hit a record 1.6 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2016. What’s more, despite low oil prices, EIA sees Gulf production topping 1.7 mbd this year and surging to 1.9 mbd in 2018. Even more instructive than record output is the composition of that output: production from deep and ultra-deep water projects accounted for an incredible 87 percent of Gulf output last year. Projects in more than 5,000 feet of water, the same depth Deepwater Horizon was drilling—produced almost half of all Gulf oil.

This article appeared in a business publication — Forbes — and the author seems quite pleased at the uptick in economic activity. I find the trend worrisome. While it’s true that some new regulations have been put in place, the government has failed to enact all of the key safety recommendations from the experts who studied Deepwater Horizon, and it has also failed to put an adequate number of inspectors on the job. The surge in offshore production means a much greater risk of a second Deepwater Horizon-style accident, and that is a risk that the battered Gulf simply cannot tolerate. What’s more, in an era when prices for producing clean energy have dropped dramatically, the 2010 oil spill was a chance to begin transitioning away from fossil fuel production in the Gulf. That is the best way to finally get beyond the tragedy.

Read more about the surge in Gulf oil production from Forbes:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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

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