Six years ago, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers onboard and opening an oil well that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The spill ultimately released over 200 million gallons of oil into the ocean. Although the oil has mostly been cleaned up off the beaches, the worst of the spill is not over for the Gulf and its inhabitants. It’s an ongoing disaster that should serve as a clear reminder of offshore drilling should be taken off of the “all of the above” menu for how we get our energy going forward.

The real story of the spill’s impact on the Gulf has been coming out and it does not have a happy ending. More than 50,000 people were involved in the clean-up efforts – and as a result were exposed to chemicals that can severely damage lung tissue. It has been estimated that the loss of productivity from Gulf of Mexico fisheries will cost the economy $8.7 billion by 2020. More than 22,000 jobs were lost.


And the animals in the Gulf have faced severe consequences. As detailed in an Oceana report released this month – “Time for Action: Six Years after Deepwater Horizon” – mortality rates for common bottlenose dolphins living in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay were eight percent higher than other dolphin populations, and their reproductive success was 63 percent lower. Other studies have detailed increased heart failure in juvenile bluefin and yellowfin tunas, reduced swimming ability in juvenile mahi-mahi and damaged gill tissue in killifish. As many as 800,000 birds may have been killed by the spill. The pollution also killed endangered sea turtles – 75 percent of the sea turtles found dead after the spill were Kemp’s ridley turtles, the smallest and most endangered sea turtle species in the world.

Coastal communities around the world are paying attention to what happened in the Gulf and are – as result – making very different choices.

In Belize, not long after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, it was discovered that the government had made massive oil exploration concessions throughout Belizean waters, including areas inside natural monuments, marine reserves and national parks. Offshore drilling in Belize would threaten the country’s seven World Heritage Sites and the Belizean Barrier Reef, part of the second largest reef system in the world. In 2011, Oceana co-founded the Belize Coalition to Save Our National Heritage – an alliance that included 40 different groups. The Coalition collected and delivered 18,000 signatures to the Governor General’s office calling for a referendum on offshore drilling and exploration. When its petition was denied, the coalition instead organized an election of their own. The resultant “People’s Referendum” brought out more than 30,000 Belizeans, and 95 percent of them opposed offshore drilling. Unable to ignore public pressure, the government announced last December that it intended to impose a permanent ban on offshore oil exploration along the Belizean barrier reef system and within the country's seven World Heritage Sites.

The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa. The famous beaches and fascinating volcanic landscapes form the basis of a tourism industry that brings as many as 12 million people to the islands every year, accounting for nearly a third of the islands’ GDP. When citizens of the Canary Islands learned that Repsol, an energy company, was conducting a deep-water survey, they were adamantly against it. A poll organized by the local government showed three quarters of the population opposed offshore drilling activity, which posed a threat to local ecosystems, dolphin populations and their tourism industry. Although the Spanish national government supported the oil company, the local communities had made their voices heard. In January of this year, Repsol abandoned its plans for oil and gas exploration.

And in the U.S., the Obama administration recently protected the Southeast from offshore oil drilling. Just last month, the administration withdrew its proposal to include regions of the Atlantic Ocean in the Department of the Interior’s 5-year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program (2017-2022) for offshore oil exploration and drilling leases. The decision was in response to the massive grassroots opposition from residents of coastal communities along the Atlantic coast. Once again, the people who knew their communities, environment and livelihoods could suffer the worst consequences of an oil spill stood up and opposed offshore drilling activity.

Coastal communities are rejecting offshore oil drilling because the risks are not worth it.  There are other alternatives - like offshore wind energy - that can create more jobs and generate more energy than offshore oil drilling. We need an energy policy that reflects the collective wisdom of these coastal communities. 

It is an unfortunate coincidence that the anniversary of the largest oil spill in American history should fall so close to our Earth Day celebrations, but the contrast between these events illustrates two possible paths forward. We can continue to pursue fossil fuels with reckless abandon and face the potentially catastrophic consequences, or we can follow the lead of the men and women of coastal towns around the world who envision a more sustainable energy future that protects our economies, livelihoods and oceans.

Sharpless is CEO of Oceana