Deepwater Horizon’s missed lessons

As the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy fades from public concern, its painful lessons seem to have been lost as well.

A year ago this week, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling issued its final report, recommending sweeping changes in the way industry and government manage offshore oil drilling. The bipartisan panel made 30 broad recommendations aimed at improving the safety of offshore drilling, safeguarding the environment, strengthening oil spill response, advancing well containment capabilities and ensuring financial responsibility.

But few of the recommendations have been implemented. Congress has taken no action at all. And after making only modest reforms, many of which were cosmetic (e.g. reshuffling and renaming the dysfunctional Minerals Management Service), the Obama administration is again charging forward with plans to expand offshore drilling. Given the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and recent offshore spills by Chevron in Brazil, ConocoPhillips in China and Shell in Nigeria, you would expect the oil industry and U.S. government to take such risk much more seriously. Unfortunately, it seems that ignorance and wishful thinking are more politically convenient than honestly dealing with risk.

The administration has approved Shell’s plans for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean for this coming summer, which not only presents significant spill risk but — even if no spills occur — will harm an ecosystem already suffering the disastrous impacts of climate change. And the administration’s 2012-17 offshore leasing plan, now out for public review, proposes yet another expansion of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. As is typical with such pro-drilling federal plans, the environmental impact statement for the new plan dramatically understates risk and overstates response capabilities and potential benefits.


What’s more, the drilling plan ignores the urgent need to transition to a sustainable energy economy that would stabilize climate and provide economic and environmental security. The hundreds of millions of tons of carbon that would be produced in the new offshore drilling program would end up in the global atmosphere, biosphere and oceans, serving only to deepen the climate crisis and to delay our transition to sustainable energy.

Our time is up for dealing with the energy and climate crisis. Most reputable scientists say that to avoid climatic, ecological and economic catastrophe, we urgently need to bring atmospheric CO2 concentrations down to less than 350 parts per million. Today we are at 390 ppm and rising. Despite all the feel-good rhetoric on this issue from the Obama administration, its new drilling plan bows to political expediency and proposes more high-risk reliance on carbon-intensive fossil energy for decades to come.

Although the administration has taken small steps to increase energy efficiency and low-carbon energy supply, those actions are nowhere near what is possible or necessary. We still waste more than half of the fossil energy we use, although we have the technology to cut energy use and carbon emissions in half. But our hydrocarbon addiction and economy of waste run so deep that there seems little political motivation to change.

The administration’s new drilling plan warns that if no additional offshore lease sales are offered between 2012 and 2017, then to compensate, government may need to “favor alternative vehicle fuels such as ethanol or methanol, vehicles with greater fuel efficiency, or alternative transportation methods such as mass transit”; “might mandate increased reliance on … wind-generated electric power”; and “might give more emphasis to programs encouraging more efficient electricity transmission and more efficient use of gas and electricity in factories, offices and homes.”

Of course, that’s just the point. These are precisely some of the policy actions that are urgently needed, and it seems clear that government will not pursue them aggressively enough if it simply leaves the door open to easy oil, onshore and offshore. It is time to limit access to new oil development and force society to make the switch to a low-carbon energy economy in time to avert a climate disaster.

President Obama needs to walk his talk on the climate and energy crisis; abide the lessons learned from past mistakes, in particular the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe; implement the oil spill commission recommendations; and lead an aggressive transition to a sustainable energy economy.

Richard G. Steiner, a marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska from 1980 to 2010, works on offshore oil issues, spill prevention, response, damage assessment and restoration, and consults globally on energy and environment issues. He advised nongovernmental organizations in the Gulf of Mexico on a pro-bono basis during the Deepwater Horizon spill.