Six years ago, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. With the theatrical release today of the film "Deepwater Horizon," offshore oil drilling is back in the news. This new film, based on the events of April 20, 2010, is a reminder that the damage caused by the largest environmental disaster in American history persists. Six years later, the Gulf is still recovering and new studies have illustrated the extreme effects the oil spill has had on that ecosystem. This new film also reminds us that, unfortunately, the threat of a similar catastrophe elsewhere in U.S. waters remains.
Earlier this year, Oceana released a report – “Time for Action: Six Years after Deepwater Horizon” – that compiled recent scientific studies about the continuing impact of the spill – on both Gulf residents and wildlife. It has been estimated, for example, that the loss of productivity from Gulf of Mexico fisheries will cost the economy $8.7 billion by 2020. We also found that more than 22,000 jobs were lost as a result of the spill.
Animals in the Gulf have faced severe consequences as well: mortality rates for common bottlenose dolphins living in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay were eight percent higher than other dolphin populations, and their reproductive success was 63 percent lower. Other studies detailed increased heart failure in juvenile bluefin and yellowfin tunas, reduced swimming ability in juvenile mahi-mahi and damaged gill tissue in killifish. The pollution also killed endangered sea turtles – 75 percent of the sea turtles found dead after the spill were Kemp’s ridley turtles, the smallest and most endangered sea turtle species in the world. And the oil plume from the disaster caused bleaching and tissue loss in deep-water coral reefs over an area three times the size of Manhattan.
Advertising for the new movie is ubiquitous; every time I see another commercial full of explosions, destruction and death, I fear the possibility of another disaster. Fortunately, the Obama administration made the commendable decision to suspend plans to open up drilling in the Atlantic. It has, however, continued to allow seismic airgun blasting to search for oil and gas – even when there are no plans to drill. Before President Obama leaves office, the administration should deny all seismic airgun blasting permits.
But I am especially concerned about the possibility of disaster in one of our most fragile habitats – the U.S. Arctic. In recent weeks, the oil industry has engaged in an aggressive publicity campaign to persuade the Obama administration to sell new oil and gas lease sales in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. In each five-year plan since 1980, the government has scheduled lease sales in the Arctic Ocean. Each time, the government has predicted that substantial benefits would result from the sale of leases and the production of oil and gas. Each time, the government has been wrong. Rather than benefits for the American people, leasing and exploration have resulted in risk, controversy and near disaster.
The administration should see through this self-serving PR effort, learn from the BP disaster and remove the Chukchi and Beaufort seas from the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Five-Year Leasing Program. While Gulf residents and wildlife continue to recover, we have an opportunity to forge a better Deepwater Horizon legacy – we can work to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.