Deepwater Horizon Anniversary Reminds Why Offshore Drilling Should Be Phased Out, Not Expanded

Chris Carnevale | April 20, 2017 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling
Deepwater Horizon in Flames
Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Today is the seventh anniversary of the tragic Deepwater Horizon blowout. On April 20, 2010, the drilling rig sparked a massive explosion, which killed 11 people and set into motion 87 horrific days of pollution and destruction. Day-by-day, painful uncertainty persisted as more than 200,000 gallons of oil gushed into the ocean each day while attempts to stop the flow of oil failed. The fears of coastal residents and businesses came true as a total of 200 million gallons of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, oiling over a thousand miles of coastline from Texas to Florida.

Livelihoods were jeopardized and even lost. For some oystermen, harvests went down by 75 percent or more from pre-2010 levels and shrimpers saw catches down by 80 percent or more. Tourism-based businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, and tour companies reported very difficult years along the Gulf in 2010, despite hoping for a big year to recover from the poor performance of the 2009 season. For example, Gulf Shores, AL and Orange Beach, AL reported a 41 percent decline in the number of tourists in 2010, compared to 2009, and lodging revenue for Baldwin County, AL dropped 33 percent ($58 million) during the summer of 2010 compared to 2009. Compared to 2009, Walton County, FL’s hotel occupancy levels in May 2010 were down 6 percent, food and beverage revenue was down 16 percent, and revenue from additional tourism-related products and services sold was down 32 percent. BP helped the tourism industry recover with major advertising campaigns, however much damage had already been done.

Perhaps worse than the direct economic damage are the ways that the spill has hurt the health of Gulf residents and workers. More than 50,000 cleanup workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis, resulting in chronic debilitating conditions, and possibly increased risks of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Gulf residents suffered considerable mental health degradation as well, with sharp increases in anxiety and clinical depression, largely related to the loss of income from the spill. For the first year after the spill, between one-third and a half of the population of Baldwin County, AL and Franklin County, FL met the criteria for clinical depression (compared to a 10-11 percent baseline). A year later, about 20 percent of the population was still depressed. Among people with direct income loss from the spill, more than 83 percent had clinically significant depression and more than 89 percent had clinically significant anxiety one year after the spill.

Wildlife and ecosystem health was severely harmed, evidenced by facts such as dolphin deaths at 4 times historic rates, tens of thousands of sea turtles killed, an estimated 12 percent of brown pelicans and 32 percent of laughing gulls in the region killed, and die off of coral colonies.

Pledge to Protect the CoastIn spite of the large toll that the Deepwater Horizon disaster took on the Gulf, President Obama expanded offshore drilling. Now, President Trump is reportedly preparing a full assault on coastal communities by proposing a major, sweeping nationwide expansion of offshore drilling.

The suffering and destruction caused by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy makes it clear that there is large price to pay for offshore drilling. We should take it to heart and transition away from the undue risk of offshore drilling as we transition to other, less risky forms of energy.

The industry now says in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy that technology has improved and that lessons learned have been integrated into modern operating procedures. There is some truth to that, however, the fact remains that the vast majority of offshore oil spills are caused by human error, not technological failure. As Jim Raney, director of engineering and technology at major oil company Anadarko, says, 80 percent of major offshore accidents are caused by human errors, yet “You can’t fix stupid.” In fact, the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster were pinpointed on 5 separate human errors, followed by the famed mechanical error of the blowout preventer failure. David Hammer at the New Orleans Times-Picayune writes:

“The rig’s malfunctioning blowout preventer ultimately failed, but it was needed only because of human errors. Those errors originated with a team of BP engineers in Houston who knew they had an especially tough well, one rig workers called ‘the well from hell.’ Despite the well’s orneriness, the engineers repeatedly chose to take quicker, cheaper and ultimately more dangerous actions, compared with available options. Even when they acknowledged limited risks, they seemed to consider each danger in a vacuum, never thinking the combination of bad choices would add up to a total well blowout.”

Times-Picayune Graphic - Six Steps That Doomed the Deepwater HorizonIn light of this reality, it is not a matter of if such an event will happen again if we continue to drill deepwater wells, it is a matter of when. The statistics gurus at Five Thirty Eight seem to agree that a repeat of such a disaster is a likely event if the offshore drilling industry continues into the future. They compare the scenario to a stack of slices of Swiss cheese: “Each slice is a barrier against disaster — an alarm, a shutoff valve, a pressure test — but, like all barriers, it is imperfect. The more slices of cheese in the stack, and the smaller the holes in each slice, the less likely there is to be a hole all the way through. But keep rearranging the slices, and the chances of a disaster will keep rising.” It was only a matter of time in the offshore drilling industry before the slices were arranged just right for the Deepwater Horizon tragedy to occur.

A number of factors made the drilling of Deepwater Horizon’s well complex and difficult, which is indicative of the trend of the offshore drilling industry in general. Over the course of decades of offshore drilling, the “easy” wells have already been tapped, so oil production is moving to more difficult locations. Even though the industry has as a whole has drilled 50,000 wells in its history, analysis shows that only 43 of those wells have been as complex as the Deepwater Horizon well. With the industry moving in the direction of more complex drilling in deeper water, it is incorrect to project the likelihood of another massive blowout based on historic data alone, but rather must look at where future wells will be. 1 in 43 is not good odds. Factor in the possibility that the industry may cut corners on safety measures in light of low oil prices, and the picture looks worse.

In spite of any potential lessons learned by the industry after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, there are still an alarming number of near-misses. Five Thirty Eight reports that “there were 105 fires and explosions on offshore facilities in the Gulf of Mexico [in 2014] and an additional 25 incidents in which natural gas escaped but didn’t ignite. There were also seven ‘losses of well control‘ — the precursor to a blowout like the one that felled the Deepwater Horizon.”

We must ask if we are willing to accept this tragedy to ever be replayed again, even once, in American history. Communities up and down the East Coast have loudly and repeatedly said “no.” More than 120 local governments and 1,000+ businesses have formally stated opposition to drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Communities in Alaska, the West Coast, and the eastern Gulf have said “no” and even the state of Louisiana and Gulf counties long supportive of the oil and gas industry have begun to challenge the industry.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, not increase the odds of repeating them. If President Trump chooses to fly in the face of coastal communities and expand offshore drilling, then he will bear responsibility for such repeated mistakes.

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
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