NYTimes Op-Ed 4.17.14
APRIL 16, 2014
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Credit Doug Chayka
FOUR years ago this Sunday, BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico blew out, destroying the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers and setting off an uncontrolled oil gusher lasting 87 days. By the time the flow was stopped, an estimated 200 million gallons of oil had entered the ocean.
The harm to gulf wildlife has been long-lasting if not fully understood. One recent study found that dolphins in the gulf region were suffering from problems consistent with exposure to oil: lung damage and low levels of adrenal hormones, which are important for responding to stress. Another study found that bluefin and yellowfin tuna sustained heart damage, which suggests likely harm to other fish as well. Another legacy has been the oiling of marshes along the coast, which has exacerbated coastline erosion by killing grasses that help keep the shoreline intact.
One of us, Liz Birnbaum, had for nine months been head of the government agency that regulated the offshore drilling industry when the spill began. We were both horrified to discover that the best efforts of industry and government engineers could not stop the spill for months.
We would never have imagined so little action would be taken to prevent something like this from happening again. But, four years later, the Obama administration still has not taken key steps recommended by its experts and experts it commissioned to increase drilling safety. As a result, we are on a course to repeat our mistakes. Making matters worse, the administration proposes to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic and allow seismic activities harmful to ocean life in the search for new oil reserves.
Following the spill, the administration promised that it would do what was necessary to make drilling as safe as possible. A presidential commission recommended numerous measures to increase drilling safety. The Coast Guard, the Department of the Interior and the National Academy of Engineering subsequently identified more problems that contributed to the spill. Though some recommendations have been acted upon, including restructuring the regulatory agency that oversees drilling and increasing training and certification for government drilling rig inspectors, threats remain.
One huge concern centers on the blowout preventers, which seal wells in blowouts and are the last line of defense for events like the one at Deepwater Horizon. It’s unfathomable that the administration has failed to act on the findings of the December 2011 report of the National Academy of Engineering, which gave us some very bad news about Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer.
Its massive cutting blades were supposed to slice through the drill pipe to stop the flow of gushing oil. But it turned out that these huge pieces of equipment were not adequately engineered to stop emergency blowouts in deep water.
The academy’s report was detailed and damning. Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer “was neither designed nor tested for the dynamic conditions that most likely existed at the time that attempts were made to recapture well control,” the report said. More troubling, the shortcomings of Deepwater’s equipment “may be present” at other deepwater drilling operations, the report said.
Administration officials promised an immediate response to the N.A.E. report, including regulations to set new standards for blowout preventers by the end of 2012. Today, 16 months after that deadline and four years after the blowout, we still have not seen even proposed rules. Deepwater drilling continues in the gulf. New leases are being offered by the government and sold to energy companies each year. Yet the N.A.E. report warned that a blowout in deep water may not be controllable with current technology.
The risk of another blowout is real. Offshore wells have lost control several times in the past year. In July the Timbalier 220 well spewed natural gas for two days in the gulf, setting a drilling rig on fire, before it could be stopped. Its operators were fortunate that the blowout took place in just 154 feet of water, where the pressure is lower and underwater access is easier, and that the spill was mostly natural gas. But the same lack of control could easily lead to another oil blowout in deep water.
This continuing threat to the oceans is compounded by the administration’s recent proposal to allow the use of seismic air guns to search for oil along the Atlantic coast. Scientists use these blasts to map the subsurface of the seafloor. But they harm a wide range of species, and the Interior Department’s own analysis indicates that they may kill large numbers of dolphins and whales. Rather than waiting for pending scientific guidelines that would determine whether this acoustic testing could be done safely, the administration has rushed to allow the oil industry to move forward.
We have seen this pattern before. The expansion of drilling into deeper water and farther from shore was not coupled with advances in spill prevention and response. The same is true as we push into new territory in the Atlantic. As we commemorate one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history, we hope our leaders can rethink the expansion of offshore drilling, put real safety measures in place in the gulf and chart a course for safer and cleaner solutions to end the need for this risky business in the first place.
S. Elizabeth Birnbaum is a consultant at SEB Strategies, and was director of the Minerals Management Service at the time of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Jacqueline Savitz is vice president for U.S. Oceans at Oceana, an international conservation group.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 17, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Deepwater Horizon Threat.
Special thanks to Richard Charter