Deepwater Horizon: 10 years on, a historic oil price crash makes one thing clear, keep it in the ground
The Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded 10 years ago, on April 20, 2010, and killed 11 people. It wasn't the deadliest. Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea, UK, remains the worst offshore oil disaster in history after 167 people lost their lives in July 1988. However, the event had repercussions for years to come, both environmental and political.
Even Hollywood made a movie in 2016, 'Deepwater Horizon', starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez and Dylan O'Brien. While Wahlberg's films generally tend to be over-the-top, 'Deepwater Horizon' was a surprisingly mature story depicting one of the worst ecological disasters in our lifetimes.
When the rig exploded, gas erupted into a massive fireball as 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in an area between 2,500 and 68,000 square miles, over 87 days, the largest and most expensive marine oil spill in history, with an estimated $17.2 billion in damages to properties, fisheries, and tourism across the Gulf Coast. An estimated 1 million birds and countless marine animals perished. Oil washed up along more than 1,300 miles of coastline in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, devastating local economies.
This resulted in perhaps one of President Barack Obama's most important executive orders when he created a commission to study the spill. This commission recommended new safety rules, diligent accountability standards and environmental regulations for drilling in US waters. Obama subsequently signed another executive order to promote environmental stewardship of the ocean, coasts, and the Great Lakes in light of the oil spill.
One of the parties responsible, oil and gas company BP ended up paying what would be the largest civil and criminal settlements ever in the United States — more than $20 billion and $4 billion respectively.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has rolled back many of Obama's policies as it focuses on energy-intensive economic growth. Oddly enough, on the 10th anniversary of the oil spill, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil price fell to negative levels for the first time in history and at the time of writing stands at roughly $1.3 per barrel.
Experts also believe similar situations can happen again. Frances Ulmer, who served on the commission and is a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School told Guardian, “Disasters like oil spills will happen again because this is an extremely high-risk operation, particularly when you’re talking about drilling for oil over a mile of water and then a couple miles down under the seafloor. There are a lot of things that can go wrong.”
In a report by Oceana, an organization dedicated to protecting the world's oceans, campaign director Diane Hoskins says, “Offshore drilling is still as dirty and dangerous as it was 10 years ago." She continues, “If anything, another disaster is more likely today as the oil industry drills deeper and farther offshore. Instead of learning lessons from the BP disaster, President Trump is proposing to radically expand offshore drilling, while dismantling the few protections put in place as a result of the catastrophic blowout.”
Oceana's report shows that the conditions that led to the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion have not improved and continue to put human lives and the environment in danger. It also details the ecological catastrophes that have followed. For five years, more than 75% of dolphin pregnancies failed in the area. One of the most endangered species of whales — the Bryde's whale — decreased by about 22%. As many as 800,000 birds died, including up to 32% of laughing gulls and 12% of brown pelicans and up to 170,000 sea turtles were killed by the spill. Moreover, about 8.3 million oysters were killed, and certain populations of fish, shrimp and squid decreased by as much as 85%.
Oceana's recommendations are clear — the Trump administration needs to prioritize the environment. The organization suggests that all offshore drilling expansion activities must be halted, that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) must reverse efforts to weakens safety regulations, that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) must deny all pending geological and geophysical seismic permits for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, Congress should incentivize investments in clean and renewable energy.
This week's historic crash of oil prices prompted Daniel Yergin, one of the foremost experts in the oil and gas industry, to say, “The May crude oil contract is going out not with a whimper, but a primal scream," This is perhaps a wake-up call to the administration. The best thing to do at this point — for both the environment and the economy — is to leave the fossil fuels in the ground while governments across the world take a more serious call on how to best safeguard the future of this planet.