Two Years After the Gulf Oil Spill, Why We Won’t Stop Drilling

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The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill

It was two years ago today that the Deepwater Horizon—a top-of-the-line offshore drilling rig owned by BP and run by Transocean—experienced a sudden burst of gas from a three-mile long well its crew was drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, 40 miles south of the Louisiana coast. The combustible methane rushed up the well and into the rig, igniting a massive explosion that would kill 11 workers, destroy the Deepwater Horizon—and trigger the biggest offshore oil spill the U.S. had ever seen.

4.9 million barrels of oil would spill for nearly three months before the shattered Macondo well was finally capped. The oil spill dominated the news for much of the summer—I wrote two cover stories on it for TIME, just a few weeks apart, and for most of the summer we discussed little else on this blog. It wasn’t just the spectacle of the multi-billion dollar oil industry trying and repeatedly failing to close a blowout in conditions that were comparable to working on the moon, nor was it the simply the sight of pelicans, marshes and fishermen alike drenched in oil. The 2010 oil spill demanded our attention because it seemed to represent a potential turning point in our tortured relationship to crude oil. The usually invisible environmental cost was right there for everyone to see on BP’s webcam, crude billowing up from the well’s shattered pipes, oil turning the Louisiana marshes a dark chocolate brown.

As outraged as environmentalists were, they saw the oil spill as an oppourtunity. The Santa Barbara blowout of 1969 had helped kickstart the green movement and ensure that offshore drilling wouldn’t be expanded on the Atlantic or Pacific Coasts. Surely a far bigger spill, in a much more media-intensive moment, would help convince Americans to block new oil offshore production in the Gulf or Alaska, and cement support for renewable forms of energy that are pretty much incapable of spilling?

And yet, two years on, the big story about American oil is how much of it there suddenly is. Thanks largely to a boom in tight oil in North Dakota and Texas, domestic oil production reversed a decades-long slide, and the talk now isn’t about getting of oil, but in becoming energy independent. Concern about the oil spill has given way to complaints about high gas prices. The oil industry itself—which rarely mentions the spill—continues to push for drilling in more offshore territory, from the eastern Gulf to the cold waters of Arctic Alaska. And for the most part, the Obama Administration seems happy to see that drilling go forward. What happened?

(MORE: The Gulf Oil Spill)

In short, oil won. It was never realistic to think that the Gulf oil spill would somehow lead to an end to offshore drilling in the U.S.—especially since, without a corresponding drop in consumption, we’d just end up importing more oil from international sources. (And some of those sources would be far worse for the environment than the disaster in the Gulf—Nigeria, a major exporter to the U.S., experiences a cumulative Exxon Valdez-sized spill each year.) Over at Climate Central, Michael Lemonick (who also contributes to TIME) notes that even with oil consumption falling in the U.S. thanks to a still-slugging economy and more fuel-efficient vehicles, oil is still the oxygen of American economic life, and one no President will seriously attempt to stifle:

The fact that gasoline is pushing $4 a gallon in an election year could be a factor — just as politics is plausibly a factor in the administration’s announcement last fall that it would encourage “robust oil and gas development” in the Gulf starting this year, and why the president included oil drilling as part of the “all-of-the-above” energy strategy he outlined in this year’s State of the Union address.

It’s hardly just politics, though. It’s the fact that our economy has evolved to be dependent on road transportation, especially since the 1950’s. True, Americans have beendriving less lately, thanks to the recession and high gasoline prices. The trend is stronger among young people, according to a new report. But since the population is still growing, the prospects of reducing our oil consumption drastically are pretty remote at this point.

Indeed, despite the arguments of his critics, Obama has hardly been anti-oil. But even if the oil spill has done little to slow the general expansion of drilling, at the very least it should have helped make drilling safer. Investigations in the wake of the spill showed countless problems with the oversight of offshore drilling and the response to a major spill—remember the BP oil spill plan that listed the very cold-weather walrus as a native species of the Gulf—was calamitous, especially in the early days. The very fact that it took nearly three months to cap the deepwater well indicated that there were risks to offshore drilling—especially in the deep—that the industry and the rest of us hadn’t reckoned.

(MORE: There Will Be Oil—and That’s the Problem)

There were safety improvements in the wake of the spill. The much-criticized deepwater moratorium gave the government time to rejigger offshore oversight, giving birth to the awkwardly named but generally better Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). A presidential commission issued a report nearly a year after the spill that was scathing in its indictment of regulatory and industry failures, but offered a blueprint for better drilling. The oil industry itself—taking a page from the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island—created the Center for Offshore Safety, and announced plans to develop a third-party audit process for drilling.

But that same Presidential commission has just taken another look at the state of offshore drilling and the response to the oil spill—and it’s far from positive. You can download a PDF of the report here, but Donald Boesch—president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a member of the commission—has already written about his concerns in Nature:

Cement formulation, testing and placement — major factors in the blowout — seem to be more of an art than a science. Cementing is also central to debates on the increased recovery of hydrocarbons by hydro-fracturing, because it is critical both to limiting fugitive emissions of methane and to preventing contamination of shallower aquifers.

The 2010 accident showed that no operating company in the world had the capacity to rapidly contain a deep-water blowout. It took months of seat-of-the-pants engineering to build and deploy a capping stack that provided effective containment. Confusion reigned over the fate of the oil and gas released 1,500 metres below the surface, largely because of a lack of understanding of the operating environment, including the direction and speed of water currents, and the behaviour of hydrocarbons released at depth.

And Boesch reserved particular contempt for the near total failure of Congress to do much of anything in the wake of the oil spill, other than grandstand:

Unfortunately, the US Congress — caught up in partisan rancour, including debates about expanding offshore oil drilling — has failed to adopt legislation to address the lessons learned and the recommendations of the oil-spill commission and others. Such legislation should codify the executive reforms mentioned earlier into law, increase liability limits, and dedicate sustained funding for oil-spill research and environmental assessment and monitoring.

Even in the current constrained fiscal circumstances, improved oversight and essential R&D could be supported by industry fees amounting to pennies per barrel, imperceptible within the daily fluctuations in price on the world market or at the pump.

Unfortunately attempts by Congress to tighten regulation of offshore drilling—especially in the new area of the Arctic, where conditions will be far more treacherous than those experienced in the Gulf—are often tripped up over disagreements about revenue sharing. (The states where drilling occurs, like Alaska, want to keep most of the money, while other states want more kicked back to the federal government.) Drilling can’t be made perfectly safe, but it can be made safer—and if we’re going to let rigs cruise the icy seas of the Arctic, or the coastal waters off states like Florida or Maine, it must be made safer. That’s the only opportunity left to be made of the 2010 oil spill, as it recedes further and further from memory.

MORE: Nearly Two Years On, Did the BP Oil Spill Have to Happen to BP?