Pelicans drenched in the grime of a receding tide. Sea turtles and dolphins washed up dead along once crowded beaches. Exhausted volunteers trudging through toxic red and brown sludge, equipped with only plastic gloves and shoves. An army of fireships circled around a towering inferno that seemingly no amount of water could quell. Month after month, images of the BP oil spill dominated the front page of every newspaper across the country. Soon, the tragedy still paralyzing the Gulf came to define 2010 as a whole.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster remains the biggest oil spill in world history. However, despite its infamy and extensive coverage, the causation and blame of the BP rig explosion that killed 11 workers and ultimately released 4.2 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico remains contested. Various investigations point to valve failure and defective cement on the rig, thus faulting BP. Additional investigations say that shoddy federal regulations and poor oversight caused the explosion, which puts the blame on the U.S. government. Although subsequent legal action demanded the identification of a villain, the truth behind what allowed the disaster to happen is far more complex. Years of cutting corners, not one careless mistake, led to the rig explosion. In this way, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was merely a symptom of a more dangerous disease. Treatment of this symptom (by way of court settlements) should not get in the way of diagnosing the root problems. Now is the time to actually look at the culture and legal constructs that paved the way for the BP oil spill. Only then can there begin actual recovery.
NEW ORLEANS – Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21, 2010. A Coast Guard MH-65C dolphin rescue helicopter and crew document the fire aboard the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon, while searching for survivors April 21, 2010. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon’s 126 person crew. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
When it comes to offshore drilling, what’s important to first understand is the relationship the federal government has with the fossil fuel industry.
See, offshore drilling happens on public land. Oil platforms represent a subsidized loan of public space to private interests for profit. Although the public trust doctrine requires elected officials to preserve natural and cultural resources for the greater public, the U.S. government justifies deals with oil and gas companies on the premise that the success of big oil is ultimately in the people’s best interest. Although operations vary in size, one new offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico can be expected to produce roughly 200,000 barrels per day.1 That same rig can also be expected to pollute as much as 7,000 cars driving 50 miles daily over the course of its operational lifespan. Meanwhile, a single oil well (a typical platform has multiple) discharges approximately 1,500 – 2,000 tons of waste material, which can dangerously bio-accumulate in the seafood supply.2 Still, at the end of the day, the harms to U.S. fisheries, the shipping and tourism industry, water and air quality, climate stability, and marine and coastal ecosystems is supposed to be worth the promise of energy, royalties, tax revenue, and economic activity brought by drilling operations. Each lease (which often stretch upwards of 70 years) of shared public space for oil extraction (which only lasts an average of 15 to 30 years) denotes this choice on behalf of the American people by their government. Looking at the state of the Gulf of Mexico today, at what point can we say the public trust has been betrayed?
Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, the idea that the success of big oil is in the people’s best interest continues to directly inform how legislators approach drilling companies. Anchored by the overarching goal of bolstering the oil and gas industry, laws regulating offshore oil extraction are consistently and dangerously scarce and incomplete. In fact, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) identified the offshore oil and gas field to be the least regulated ocean-related industry both regionally and internationally when it comes to environmental sustainability and employment practices.3 Weaknesses in past legislation have only been exacerbated by the implementation of modern extraction techniques (e.g. fracking) and the development of deepwater drilling. Current legislation simply does not take into account the way the fossil fuel industry has evolved. Rig discharges, for example, are still largely unregulated. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which gives the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) the authority to control hazardous waste from cradle-to-grave, exempts “drilling fluids, produced waters, and other wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil, natural gas, or thermal energy.”4 Legislatures crafted this exemption to financially benefit the fossil fuel industry. This policy loophole is proving to be a grave error, especially when it comes to fracking. Disclosure of the true composition of fracking fluid (i.e. the chemical mixture used to fracture shale) remains protected through various “trade secret” exemptions under U.S. state and federal law.5 However, studies of it have found known carcinogens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other endocrine inhibitors toxic to human health and marine life.
Such waning supervision begs the question: what/who is truly being protected, if not the people and the environment on which their lives and livelihoods depend? Still, federal oversight continually functions under the guise that it protects people over profit. Every one of BP’s cost-cutting endeavors (e.g. cheap safety equipment), which eventually induced the deadly 2010 explosion, was signed off on by federal supervisors. Promoters simply cannot be effective enforcers.
The fluctuating political climate in the U.S. has done more to expand offshore drilling and little to remedy existing weaknesses. Now more than ever, government regulations are up in the air.
Emboldened by his last term in office, President Obama signed an executive order banning offshore drilling across millions of acres of federally owned waters in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.6 The bold move came as part of a larger effort by President Obama to fortify the environmental protections his predecessor vowed to undo. Obama’s green thumb was widely praised by conservationists who had previously critiqued his administration for not prioritizing environmental issues earlier, especially with regards to fracking. Between 2010 and 2014, federal officials approved more than 1,200 permits to frack in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily via a “rubber-stamp” process, wherein site-specific environmental risk analysis and public involvement were largely nixed.7 This is particularly troubling, considering that every permit and cost-cutting endeavor that led to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion was approved by federal regulators in a similarly absent-minded fashion. Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also allowed offshore oil companies to dump billions of gallons of toxic waste fluid directly into Gulf waters— over 76 billion gallons in 2014 alone. Documents regarding the true scope of offshore fracking in the Gulf have yet to be released, even after a recent lawsuit invoking the Freedom of Information Act.8 The question remains whether or not Obama’s last executive orders, his Hail Marys, are enough to mitigate both the offshore developments that happened under his term and the environmental harm that’s promised under Trump’s leadership.
Since his inauguration, President Trump has forged ahead with laws set to stimulate the offshore oil industry. In April 2017, Trump signed an executive order that expands offshore drilling and fracking programs, in the hope to “reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more energy independent.”
(Again, the disproven idea that the success of big oil is in the people’s best interest justifies the exploitation of public space.) During Trump’s remarks, he emphasized that his executive order will “reverse the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban”; although it’s still unclear whether the scope of Trump’s order can extend so far.9 In December 2017, the Trump administration announced the dismantling of federal safety monitoring rules for offshore drilling operations, on the grounds that the safety procedures are too burdensome on the oil industry.10 The auctioning of vulnerable public lands have only managed to hurt taxpayers so far, as oil and gas companies continue to low ball the government on drilling leases. According to a 2018 study by the Project on Government Oversight, the “average price paid per acre in each Gulf of Mexico auction has declined by 95.7%, dropping from $9,068 to $391” in the last 20 years.11 The poor quality, backed by the low quantity, of bids means the government has been virtually giving away offshore drilling rights for free. Trump’s proposal is only deepening this downward spiral.
Nevertheless, there is still hope. Recent setbacks have embolden people to mobilize more than ever before. Local governments, businesses, and organizations have taken up the fight in their communities against offshore drilling and fracking.12 Along California’s coast, 42 counties have passed motions opposing new offshore drilling facilities in the Pacific.13 In reaction to Trump’s April 2017 executive order, Florida Senator Bill Nelson, united with 20 other Senators, filed legislation that would block the implementation of new facilities until 2022.14 As of November 2017, 141 East Coast municipalities, alongside over 1,200 local, state, and federal elected officials created a resolution to formally oppose offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting.15 Just before the world rang in 2018, The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for approving the dumping of offshore fracking waste into the Gulf of Mexico.16 New York City, followed by Richmond, California (where Chevron is one of its largest employers), took the movement another step forward by suing the world’s largest oil companies for damages related to climate change.17 These emboldened lawsuits have already made history— in a March 2018 hearing, Chevron actually agreed in court that humans cause climate change, marking a significant new legal precedent.18 All the while, nationwide divestment campaigns are tirelessly detangling governments, institutions, and corporations from the subsidized web of the fossil fuel industry.
Across the U.S., people are harnessing the power of effective legislation, grassroots organization, and legal prowess to finally hold their elected officials responsible.19 Despite of and in spite of the current administration, activists are making small steps forward to minimize the impact and scale of dangerous offshore drilling operations throughout the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific. In order to avoid another Deepwater Horizon accident, there can be no more business as usual.
The future of the ocean is in the hands of the people, now more than ever.
1“Offshore Oil Production Estimate Illustrates Flaws in Forecasting.” Institute for Energy Research (IER), 7 Aug. 2008, www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/studies/offshore-oil-production-estimate-illustrates-flaws-in-eia-forecasting/?pfstyle=wp.
2“Fact Sheet on Offshore Oil Drilling.” Oregon Surfrider Foundation, Oct. 2014, oregon.surfrider.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NTA_FACT-SHEET_FINAL.pdf.
3Rochette, J. 2014. International regulation of offshore oil and gas activities: time to head over the parapet. IDDRI Policy Brief No 06/14 Feb 2014, www.iddri.org/Publications/Collections/Syntheses/PB0614_JR_o shore_EN.pdf
4U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste, EPA530-K-01-004, Exemption of Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Wastes from Federal Hazardous Waste Regulations, Oct. 2002, https://yosemite.epa.gov/oa/eab_web_docket.nsf/Attachments%20By%20ParentFilingId/945EF425FA4A9B4F85257E2800480C65/$FILE/28%20-%20RCRA%20E%26P%20Exemption.pdf
5Fox, Josh , director. Gasland. New Video Group , 2010.
6Darryl Fears, Juliet Eilperin, “President Obama bans oil drilling in large areas of Atlantic and Arctic Oceans,” washingtonpost.com, last modified December 20, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/12/20/president-obama-expected-to-ban-oil-drilling-in-large-areas-of-atlantic-and-arctic-oceans/?utm_term=.09ccfc025ee7.
7Monsell, Kristen, editor. “Obama Administration Permitted 1,200 Offshore Fracks in Gulf of Mexico.” Center for Biological Diversity, 28 June 2016, www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2016/offshore-fracking-06-28-2016.html.
8Monsell, Kristen, editor. “Obama Administration Permitted 1,200 Offshore Fracks in Gulf of Mexico.” Center for Biological Diversity, 28 June 2016, www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2016/offshore-fracking-06-28-2016.html.
9Nathan Rott, Merrit Kennedy, “Trump Signs Executive Order On Offshore Drilling And Marine Sanctuaries,” npr.org, last modified April 27, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/27/525959808/trump-to-sign-executive-order-on-offshore-drilling-and-marine-sanctuaries.
10Eilperin, Juliet, and Dino Grandoni. “Trump administration to overhaul safety-Monitoring rules for offshore drilling.” The Washington Post, 28 Dec. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-administration-to-overhaul-safety-monitoring-rules-for-offshore-drilling/2017/12/28/37cb40bc-ec20-11e7-9f92-10a2203f6c8d_story.html?utm_term=.0dc0ccd8125d.
11Jula, Megan. “The Trump Administration Is Pushing to Sell Offshore Drilling Leases, and It’s Tanking Profits for Taxpayers.” Mother Jones, 21 Mar. 2018,www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/03/the-trump-administration-is-pushing-to-sell-offshore-drilling-leases-and-its-tanking-profits-for-taxpayers/.
12Parry, Wayne. “Back-Door Ban: States Fight Trump Drill Plan with Local Bans.” Associated Press, 19 Mar. 2018,www.apnews.com/1e002b4682c543f980ede99f790a648a/Back-door-ban:-States-fight-Trump-drill-plan-with-local-bans
13“Stopping Trump’s Assault on the California Coast,” biologicaldiversity.org, last modified October 17, 2017, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/stopping_trumps_assault_on_ca_coast/index.html.
14Steve Newborn, “Sen. Nelson Vows to Fight Trump Offshore Drilling Order,” wufsnews.wusf.usf.edu, last modified April 28, 2017, http://wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/post/sen-nelson-vows-fight-trump-offshore-drilling-order.
15“Grassroots Opposition to Offshore Drilling and Exploration in the Atlantic Ocean and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico,” usa.oceana.org, http://usa.oceana.org/climate-and-energy/grassroots-opposition-offshore-drilling-and-exploration-atlantic-ocean-and.
16Lawsuit Launched Against Trump for Approving Dumping of Offshore Fracking Waste into Gulf of Mexico,” biologicaldiversity.org, last modified December 7, 2017, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2017/offshore-fracking-12-07-2017.php.
17Neuman, William. “To Fight Climate Change, New York City Takes On Oil Companies.” The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/10/nyregion/new-york-city-fossil-fuel-divestment.htm
18Irfan, Umair. “Chevron Just Agreed in Court That Humans Cause Climate Change, Setting a New Legal Precedent.” Vox, 28 Mar. 2018, www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/3/28/17152804/climate-change-federal-court-chevron.
19Hasemyer, David. “Fossil Fuels on Trial: Where the Major Climate Change Lawsuits Stand Today.” Inside Climate News, 4 Apr. 2018, insideclimatenews.org/news/04042018/climate-change-fossil-fuel-company-lawsuits-timeline-exxon-children-california-cities-attorney-general.