Six Years Later
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. More than half a decade later, the event continues to make headlines, few of them good. Just this month, a study found that the increased number of dead dolphin newborns found washed up on shore in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 was likely a result of oil exposure from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
On this anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, Oceana has released a report compiling the most recently released scientific studies about the continuing impact of the spill as well as recommendations about what should be done to help prevent a spill in the future.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to have effects on ocean ecosystems and Gulf residents. An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 birds have died. One study has shown higher mortality and lower reproduction in bottlenose dolphins. Oil exposure caused heart failure in juvenile bluefin and yellowfin tunas, reduced swimming ability in juvenile mahi-mahi fish and damaged gill tissue in killifish. The oil plume from the disaster also caused bleaching and tissue loss in deep-water coral reefs over an area three times larger than Manhattan.
Species from over a thousand miles away from the Gulf region were also impacted. Endangered sea turtles that had migrated to the Gulf from Mexico, South America and West Africa perished in the spill, showing the global impacts of the disaster.
Studies also show ongoing effects on human health. More than 50,000 people were involved in the spill cleanup and were exposed to chemicals that severely damage lung tissue. Gulf residents indirectly affected by the spill suffered from increased anxiety and depression.
The impact of the oil spill on fisheries could total $8.7 billion by 2020, including the loss of 22,000 jobs. Ten million user-days of beach, fishing and boating activity were lost.
What’s Been Done
The aftermath of the tragedy brought promises of stronger safety oversight from the government, multiple investigations and numerous recommendations. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) — the agency in charge of regulating offshore energy development — was reorganized into three separate bureaus to reduce conflicts of interest arising among its functions. The newly created Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), was assigned to promote safety, protect the environment and conserve resources through regulatory oversight and enforcement. In October 2010, BSEE issued the Drilling Safety Rule, setting in place stronger safety standards for the design of offshore oil and gas wells.
In April 2015, BSEE proposed a new rule, known as the Well Control Rule, which would improve current inspection and safety measures for offshore oil wells by requiring more stringent third-party inspections and the use of more advanced blowout prevention equipment. While there are shortcomings to this rule, it would serve as a good first step forward. However, oil and gas industry interests, with the support of some members of Congress, are vigorously pushing to weaken and delay the rule, and it has not yet been finalized and put into effect.
Scientists are only just beginning to understand the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The 1989 Exxon Valdez incident spilled almost 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, about one-twentieth the amount of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. More than 25 years later, oil is still being discovered underneath Alaskan beaches, indicating the long-lasting nature of oil spill impacts. And despite industry claims of improvement, oil disasters continue. Just last year, 21,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, California. The federal government reports that in the six years following the Deepwater Horizon spill, offshore drilling has resulted in a total of 1,066 injuries, 496 fires and explosions, 22 losses of well control, 11 spills of at least 2,100 gallons of oil each, and 11 fatalities directly related to offshore drilling. It seems clear that offshore drilling is just as dirty and dangerous as it was six years ago.
The Obama administration has already taken an important step towards transitioning away from offshore oil drilling by removing the Atlantic Ocean from the proposed five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing. But there is still more to be done. The government should remove the new lease sales scheduled in the remote and unforgiving Arctic Ocean as well as stop seismic airgun blasting from taking place along the East Coast.
Decision-makers, elected officials, stakeholders and the public need to take action to eliminate the risk of oil disasters instead of standing by and allowing industry to continue putting our oceans at risk of another catastrophic spill. The United States should invest in cleaner, safer technologies like offshore wind and other renewable energy sources. With action from Congress that is long overdue, compliance from industry, and continued leadership from the administration, we can help prevent future environmental disasters in the offshore oil and gas industry.