Ten years after Deepwater Horizon roiled the Gulf, brakes are off BP’s oil-drilling plans

A pod of Dolphins swim amid reddish patches of surface oil in the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion 10 years ago.
Dolphins are seen swimming through oil spilling from the Deepwater Horizon oil well at the height of the spill in 2010. Photo: NOAA

By Noreen Marcus,

Ten years ago, Deepwater Horizon became synonymous with one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The oil rig explosion on April 20, 2010 killed 11 workers and injured 17; about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil decimated Gulf of Mexico marine life.

The horrors were just the beginning. Over the past decade, 210 million gallons of oil fouled 92,500 miles of the Gulf, according to a recent study by University of Miami researchers. Countless marine mammals, sea turtles, birds and fish perished, thousands of cleanup workers got sick and air quality deteriorated.

Scientists link pollution to COVID-19, the respiratory disease associated with the coronavirus. A health crisis is even worse because it followed a marine ecosystem tragedy.

“Hard data shows that people exposed to air pollution are more susceptible and impacted by the COVID-19 disease,” said Tracey Sutton, a teacher and marine researcher at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. Fossil fuels affect “the environment we’re living in when we have something like a pandemic,” he said.

Deepwater Horizon was no random event. A presidential commission held oil giant BP chiefly responsible for the massive spill. The commission also blamed lax government oversight, part of a culture in which industry assertions about safety are accepted too easily.

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21, 2010. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

In 2012, the Justice Department hit BP with a record-setting $4-billion penalty. The company also had to pay many billions more in settlements. The U.S. government removed BP from its list of approved government contractors due to the company’s “lack of business integrity.”

So it can be jarring for spill victims to learn that BP, along with Exxon Mobil and other industry leaders, is now well positioned to greatly expand oil exploration and production in the same Gulf waters it poisoned 10 years ago.

BP comeback ‘infuriating’

“It’s infuriating that it’s even still a discussion,” said Robin Miller, CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. She said the Tampa Bay region, a Florida tourist mecca, suffered “devastating” business losses after the spill, but had recovered before the current health crisis.

Miller supports a bill to permanently ban oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf that was co-sponsored by Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. The bill passed the House and awaits Senate action. “We need the Senate to step up,” she said.

Florida U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, left, and Francis Rooney

Floridians chose conservation over unfettered commerce, at least symbolically, by passing Amendment 9 to the Florida Constitution in 2018. The law bans offshore drilling in three nautical miles of eastern Gulf coastal waters, but it has no direct impact on the federally controlled expanse beyond that point.

The potential for repeating mistakes is the theme of a report that Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation group, produced to mark the 10-year anniversary. “Oceana finds no lessons learned from worst oil spill in U.S. history,” it announced in a press release.

“Another disaster may be more likely today,” said Diane Hoskins of Oceana. “The industry as a whole has not embraced independent oversight or improved safety culture. In fact, they advocate for less safety, which the president has championed,” she said.

Money versus protecting oceans

BP apparently secured the enthusiastic support of President Donald Trump and his administration through donations, lobbying and job figures. An August 2018 letter from BP America to the Council of Environmental Quality noted that the company accounted for more than 125,000 U.S. jobs and contributed $85 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017, The Guardian newspaper reported.

Since his first 100 days in office, Trump has been trying to accelerate what he calls “opening up” U.S. waters, including the eastern Gulf that hugs Florida’s west coast. He means handing them over for unregulated oil production.

Former Florida Senator and Governor Bob Graham as co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

But offshore drilling is still risky, said Bob Graham, who co-chaired the national commission that found BP liable for the spill. The former Florida governor and U.S. senator told Florida Bulldog this is true “largely because the recommendations made by a variety of entities, including our presidential commission, have been largely ignored and/or rolled back during the Trump period. We are about where we were 10 years ago in terms of safety.”

It isn’t hard to trace the money and influence that seemed to inspire the president to embrace BP’s goals. BP Corp. of North America contributed $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration and spent $1.7 million on lobbying during the first three months of 2017, according to a story published by the Center for Public Integrity in May 2017.

During those early months of his presidency Trump ordered a review of all Obama-era offshore drilling safety regulations triggered by the Deepwater Horizon spill, the story said. A year later Trump declared he would allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all U.S. coastal waters, opening more than a billion acres in the Arctic and along the Eastern Seaboard.

Big case set for June

Industry advocates cheered and called for extending the permission to all offshore areas. “These are our lands. They’re taxpayer-owned and they should be made available,” American Energy Alliance president Thomas J. Pyle said, according to The New York Times.

Environmental groups were aghast. “Trump is proposing the most sweeping, radical expansion of offshore drilling that has ever been proposed by any president and he’s simultaneously gutting the safeguards that were put in place as a response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” Hoskins of Oceana said.

Oceana and others opposed to offshore drilling went to court to fight the Trump administration and its allies in the fossil fuel industry. Probably the most significant ongoing litigation is LCV vs. Trump, a case scheduled for argument in June before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) is defending a federal judge’s ruling that deems “unlawful and invalid” Trump’s order allowing oil drilling in about 128 million acres in the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic.

The League’s adversaries – Trump, the American Petroleum Institute and the state of Alaska –argue in court documents that the lawsuit is fatally premature because no permits have been issued yet. The order merely tells the Interior Department to expedite consideration of permits, not to grant them. They said the League of Conservation Voters is trying to preserve “its members’ aesthetic interests.”

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