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April 20, 2011

A Year Later, Still Learning The Lessons Of The Deepwater Horizon

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.

Recent reports have called attention to an “unusual mortality event” among bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf as scores of dead newborn or stillborn calves have been found since January. Fishermen who made their living shrimping – and then working for the BP cleanup crews – are still struggling to reclaim their piece of the Gulf, an industry that was worth $367 million and provided three-quarters of America’s shrimp. The tourism industry, worth $20 billion across five states, took a terrible blow as Americans abandoned beaches, some of which were blackened and others which never even saw a single tarball.

The report issued in January by the president’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon and Offshore Drilling was damning stuff. The commission cited a lack of safety culture at BP and in the oil industry at large, and called for “changes in safety and environmental practices, safety training, drilling technology, containment and clean-up technology, preparedness, corporate culture and management behavior.”

That about covers it, right?

The report added, “Maintaining the public trust and earning the privilege of drilling on the outer continental shelf requires no less.” And yet the government is already issuing drilling permits as if the industry’s problems have been solved.

The commission’s recommendation is for an industry-led institute to set safety standards. By now, of course, we should have learned that leaving the oil industry in charge of drilling safety is a deadly mistake.

President Obama’s proposal to close the Atlantic and eastern Gulf to drilling for at least five years was a good one, but it didn’t go far enough. The especially-vulnerable Arctic Ocean is still on the table. Last year I went to Barrow, the northernmost city in America, and had the honor of meeting the Inupiat people. Many native Alaskans still live a subsistence existence tied closely to the Arctic Ocean, a great gray and blue expanse that defines life there.

We worry about prices at the pump today, but native Alaskans and Arctic wildlife are the ones who will pay the price for offshore drilling when an accident occurs. And it will happen. In the Gulf, we had emergency resources and personnel who could show up in hours and scatter to shore when a storm rolled in, only to be back on the job as soon as weather cleared; in the Arctic, you have none of those abilities.

We should not just close some of our coasts to drilling. We should close all of them. Offshore drilling will always result in another disaster. Gas prices at the pump are a politically volatile thing, but they aren’t determined by domestic drilling; they are driven by global demand in a global market. Gas prices were halved in the second half of 2008 because demand dropped for purely economic reasons, and they dropped 30 cents in the months immediately following the Deepwater Horizon blowout. We need to focus on a clean energy future that doesn’t leave us hostage to seesawing daily gas prices.

I’ve been an ocean lover since those early childhood vacations, and I want future generations to experience that same sense of awe and wonder. With careful stewardship I know we can make this a reality.

Ted Danson is on the Board of Directors for Oceana. He is the co-author of “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.” This post also appeared on the Huffington Post.