Michael Craig is an Energy Analyst at Oceana.
It’s been just over a year and a half since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but the offshore drilling industry is already back to full steam ahead, with as many rigs drilling in deepwater in the Gulf as two years ago.
They say it’s safe. But is it?
The government and industry have pointed to new safety measures implemented by the former Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). But little analysis has been done assessing these new measures – until now.
Last week Oceana released a new analysis that examines how effective the new safety measures will be in preventing future spills and improving offshore safety. In doing so, we systemically look at what went wrong leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and conclude that the new safety measures can not guarantee against future spills, and furthermore likely would not have prevented the BP spill from occurring.
Overall, we find that the new safety measures are undermined by two factors: overarching problems in offshore regulation and flaws in the safety measures themselves.
Some of the overarching problems in the regulation of offshore drilling that the new safety measures do not address include:
- Perverse financial incentives encourage corner-cutting and saving time at the expense of safety.
- Blowout preventers, one of which memorably failed to stop the Deepwater Horizon blowout, have critical deficiencies that make it more likely they will not be able to prevent blowouts.
- The government’s inspection and oversight capabilities are woefully inadequate to ensure that companies follow the rules and operate in a safe manner.
- The offshore industry’s culture of prioritizing profits over safety has not substantively changed.
The first study showing the biological impacts to wildlife from last year’s Gulf oil spill has just been published in PNAS, and the news is not good for fish populations.
After being exposed to low levels of heavily weathered crude oil in marsh habitats, killifish, also called bull minnows, showed cellular changes in their livers which could impact reproduction and health. Killifish are an important part of the Gulf of Mexico food web, and impacts to their populations could have ecosystem-wide results.
"The message that seafood is safe to eat doesn't necessarily mean that the animals are out of the woods," said Andrew Whitehead, an assistant professor of biology at Louisiana State University and a lead researcher in the study.
These lesser-seen impacts to reproduction are predictive of more serious long-term threats to populations. In a way, these changes are even more tragic than the animals that washed up on the shore dead after the spill. The study found the same kind of cellular responses in killifish as were observed in herring, salmon and ducks that later had population crashes as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and some populations never recovered.
The fish showed changes even when the water was seemingly clean and when there were very low levels of oil present. The researchers note that even when oil is not visible on the surface, the toxic components of the oil can remain in the sediment and get stirred up by waves and storms.
"Where's the oil? It's in the sediment," Whitehead said.
He’s right. A couple of weeks ago Tropical Storm Lee unearthed miles of tar balls, tar mats and abandoned cleanup equipment left from last year's oil spill, forcing BP cleanup crews back to the beaches.
As the science of the spill is just beginning to unfold and BP continues to clean up oil on the beaches, Congress is pushing hard for more risky offshore drilling in the same affected ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, and new pristine environments like the Arctic where there is no capability to clean up after a spill.
Help us in the fight to stop offshore drilling. Sign the petition to Stop the Drill today if you haven't already!
A new federal report into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has found that BP took multiple serious shortcuts in exploratory drilling and that the operation was behind schedule and over budget. This conclusion echoes the results of previous investigations, including the January report by national commission on the oil spill.
The report also reiterated concerns about the use of blowout preventers, which are meant to be a final defense against oil rig disasters. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the blowout preventer mechanism was weakened by a failure in the drill pipe, which connects the surface rig to the well. This pipe, which spanned 5,000 feet, possibly buckled because it was simply too heavy to support itself.
Oceana has released a response calling for an end to new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the new report.
"This report confirms that bad decisions and improper, risky actions were at the root of the accident," said senior campaign director Jackie Savitz. "All deepwater drilling activities would, by their nature, also have thousands of feet of drill pipe, and could be vulnerable to the same danger."
Other fatal shortcuts cited in the report include cement failure at the base of the well, last-minute changes in drilling plans, insufficient emergency planning, and numerous violations of federal regulations governing oil well management.
After the Gulf oil spill happened, people demanded numbers. They wanted to know animal mortality numbers and dollar signs to understand the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history.
The problem is that the extent of this spill was so huge and so many animals and people were affected that it’s hard to quantify. But some recent numbers help show how widespread the impacts have been.
So far BP has set aside $20 billion for spill impacts, and it has just been released that they paid out $5 billion of that amount in damages to over 200,000 people in the last year, with an additional $1.5 billion going to cleanup and restoration.
Many more people are claiming damages, with a total of close to 1 million claims being processed from people in all 50 states and 36 different nations, with thousands more claims coming in each week.
How could a spill in the Gulf possibly affect over a million people in such far reaching places? The answer is that the Gulf of Mexico isn’t just an oil and gas depot, it is used for many activities besides drilling that employ thousands of people in fishing and tourism related jobs. As a result, the economic impacts of the spill have been felt around the world.
At last year’s TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington, D.C., Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless tackled the 10 biggest myths he hears about offshore drilling. His presentation is especially poignant this week considering the government's decision on Friday to re-open the Western Gulf of Mexico for new oil and gas exploration for the first time since the spill.
Check it out and pass it on!
It hasn’t yet been one year since the worst accidental oil spill in history was finally stopped, but the Interior Department announced Friday that it will open more than 20 million acres of the Western Gulf of Mexico to new oil and gas exploration and development.
Oceana’s senior campaign director Jackie Savitz’s responded to this outrageous news in the New York Times:
“Rushing this lease sale puts marine ecosystems at risk before the ink is even dry on the impacts of the BP spill,” said Jacqueline Savitz of the international conservation group Oceana. She added that the ocean energy bureau “appears to be caving to intense pressure from the oil industry to return to ‘business as usual,’ without regard for the extraordinary risks to already imperiled marine animals.”
Reports following the Deepwater Horizon spill have highlighted the impacts on already struggling species, such as endangered sea turtles and bluefin tuna. Many commercially important fish were spawning at the time of the spill, and studies to measure the impacts have not yet been completed. Until the status of those populations is clarified, it’s impossible to determine the impacts of this lease sale, a step required prior to the sale.
The Interior Department should not proceed with new lease sales until the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill are better understood, and until we improve our readiness to prevent and respond to major oil spills.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.
Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon gusher was finally sealed, oil companies are claiming they can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean, an even more fragile and forbidding environment than the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government seems to be suffering from amnesia, too.
This month, Shell Oil received a conditional approval from the federal government to drill four exploratory wells next summer in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The company claims that it can end a gushing spill like the Deepwater Horizon in just 43 days and clean up 90 percent of oil lost.
These claims aren’t based in historic experience and have little scientific evidence to back them up. Crews were only able to recover 10 percent of the oil escaping the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, and only 8 percent of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.
The most recent oil spill drill in the Beaufort Sea was in 2000 and was described as a “failure.” Mechanical systems like skimmers and booms in calm but icy conditions simply didn’t work. The technology has not improved since then. Just watch this video of a failed cleanup test:
This is the third in a series of ocean infographics by artist Don Foley. These infographics also appear in Oceana board member Ted Danson’s book, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.”
Last year’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was not an isolated event. The exploding rig was especially tragic, but the truth is that the oil industry produces pollution every day, as today’s infographic illustrates:
The small spills associated with oil extraction, transportation, and consumption add up to about 195 million gallons every year. That’s as much as one Deepwater Horizon gusher.
As we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, extracting oil from the seafloor is dangerous business. Everyday drilling and extracting result in chronic leaks that add up to 11 million gallons of oil pollution annually.
Transporting oil is also a major source of pollution. Sometimes ships intentionally discharge what’s known as oily ballast water—the thousands of gallons of dirty water used to keep a giant transport ship stable. Otherwise, despite their best attempts, moving oil around inevitably results in spills to the tune of 44 million gallons a year.
One year ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 rig workers and triggering the largest accidental oil spill in history.
When all was said and done in July, it had spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf, threatening sea turtles, whale sharks, spawning bluefin tuna and countless other species of fish and marine life.
I am a Californian now, but I was born a child of the desert. My parents raised me in Arizona, where my father worked as an archaeologist, and my mother took me to wander the scrubby ravines near our home. She saw beauty everywhere. As a small boy I just saw great opportunities for hide and seek.
Once a year, for our summer vacation, we would drive to the beach. I still remember the great anticipation I felt as our station wagon crested the last mild incline that would give us a view of the Pacific Ocean. It filled me with an awe I still feel today, and as an adult I’ve always lived a window away from its expanses.
But my appreciation for the ocean is complicated by the knowledge that we risk it every day for oil. Last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil disaster was a bellwether tragedy for the oceans. We know less about the deep sea than we do about the surface of Mars – just as we still don’t know the true cost of the worst oil disaster in U.S. history a year later.