Trump's offshore drilling plan is still a preventable disaster

Trump's offshore drilling plan is still a preventable disaster
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Ten years ago, the BP “Deepwater Horizon” rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting off the worst oil spill in U.S. history. More than 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf unchecked, while BP and its contractors failed to stop the spill for 87 days.

Unfortunately, few if any lessons were learned from this unprecedented tragedy, and offshore drilling is no safer today than it was a decade ago. President TrumpDonald John TrumpHR McMaster says president's policy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is 'unwise' Cast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response MORE has rolled back key safety protections put in place to prevent another Deepwater Horizon-scale catastrophe while proposing to radically expand the footprint of offshore drilling at the same time. With more drilling and less safety, the president’s plans are a recipe for disaster. 

During the crisis, while oil spilled uncontrollably, President Obama created an independent, nonpartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. They were charged with providing the nation with an impartial analysis, determining the causes and recommending reforms to make offshore drilling safer. After extensive investigation, ultimately, the commission called for “sweeping reforms” by the oil and gas industry that would amount to a “fundamental transformation of its safety culture” and “internal reinvention.”

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Today, the industry, as a whole, has not embraced independent oversight or adequately improved its safety culture. Instead, the industry continues to advocate for regulatory rollbacks — which the president has championed — while claiming publicly; it holds safety as a top priority.  

Considering the dire consequences of drilling disasters, rigorous, independent oversight should be a minimum prerequisite of doing business. Looking back, while BP was required to formulate a plan for precisely how it would handle an oil spill, the amount of effort involved appeared to rely on copying and pasting abilities. For example, BP’s response plan for Deepwater Horizon named a wildlife expert that died several years before submission of its plan and included mentions of seals and walruses – animals never found in the Gulf of Mexico. Any serious review of this plan should have caught BP’s embarrassing mistakes and revealed that in no way was the company prepared to manage a well blowout, like occurred on April 20, 2010. 

Blowouts are a known risk associated with offshore drilling and “blowout preventers” are considered the last line of defense against a catastrophic spill. This is the device that failed to prevent the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout and today, the devices remain unreliable and are still not tested under extreme, real-world conditions. In response to the disaster, the Obama administration increased the rigor of testing and government oversight of these safety devices. Still, the Trump administration has drastically undercut these improvements by reducing testing and government review of results. The Trump administration cited that their suite of safety rollbacks will save the offshore industry about $824 million over 10 years. Focusing on industry cost-savings entirely disregards the safety and environmental benefits that the safeguards were intended to provide.

Ten years after the BP disaster, impacts still linger. Researchers who study the spill describe large swaths of the ocean floor around the wellhead as a toxic waste dump, devoid of the kinds of life that typically live there. It could take 100 years or more for some wildlife to recover fully. Some oiled wetlands will never recover because the plants died and the land was washed away.

Although we may never know the full extent of damage caused by the disaster, the spill should have been a wakeup call. When Deepwater Horizon oil-coated 1,300 miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida and turned beaches black across the Gulf Coast, tourism came to a halt and housing markets slumped by as much as 8 percent. At one point, an area off of Louisiana, about the size of North and South Carolina combined, was closed to commercial fishing. The Gulf seafood industry lost nearly $1 billion, according to a government estimate – an impact that rippled across the seafood industry – from fishermen, dealers, processors, distributors, to restaurants and markets.

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Looking back at the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is painfully clear what other coastal communities can expect if offshore drilling moves to their waters. But the president’s plan is not a foregone conclusion. 

Policymakers and communities up and down America’s coasts agree that expanded offshore drilling is neither needed nor wanted. All the governors along the East and West Coasts, Republicans and Democrats alike, are opposed to expanded oil and gas exploration, development and production off their shores. Local chambers of commerce, as well as tourism and restaurant associations, are strongly rejecting oil exploration and development, including alliances representing over 56,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families.

Given the overwhelming opposition from Americans who are most at risk from the dangers of offshore drilling, the president should halt all efforts to expand offshore drilling to any new areas and reverse efforts to weaken safety regulations. 

Additionally, Congress should enact a ban on expanded offshore drilling and incentivize investments in clean, renewable energy to accelerate our necessary transition away from fossil fuels.

The lessons from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster could not be more clear and cannot be dismissed. The threat of another disaster on this scale is just as likely today as it was 10 years ago. We must act on the tragic lessons from the past decade and halt the offshore expansion drilling, otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat them.

Diane Hoskins is a campaign director at Oceana, the largest international organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana recently released a report “Hindsight 2020: Lesson We Cannot Ignore from the BP Disaster” examining the cause and impacts of the catastrophe; how those impacts are still being felt today; and whether the disaster changed the government and industry’s approach to offshore drilling.