Deepwater Disaster: Five Years On

Five years after the BP blowout that killed 11 workers and dumped millions of barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration has proposed exposing Atlantic and Arctic waters to the risk of a similar disaster. It's time to turn this ship around -- before it's too late.
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Five years after the BP blowout that killed 11 workers and dumped millions of barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration has proposed exposing Atlantic and Arctic waters to the risk of a similar disaster. Under a proposal by the Obama administration, oil and gas activity could begin in those waters as early as 2017.

That would take us in exactly the wrong direction, exposing these waters to the risk of a catastrophic spill, expanding an inherently hazardous industrial operation at sea and locking the next generation into mountains more of the dangerous carbon pollution that's driving climate change.

It's time to turn this ship around -- before it's too late.

The BP blowout has had disastrous consequences on the Gulf, its marine life and all it supports.

Dolphins are still sick and dying, about 43 more just last month, extending what has already been the worst and longest die-off of the species ever recorded in the Gulf. Since the blowout, nearly 1,200 dead dolphins have been collected in Gulf waters. Scientists reckon several die for every one recovered, suggesting that many thousands more may have died.

Brown pelicans are struggling to overcome losses that wiped out 12 percent of the population, along with one-third of the region's laughing gulls, and up to 800,000 birds in total.

Only now are the tiny acrobat ants near the base of the food chain cautiously venturing back into the spartina grass along the edge of coastal marshes that were heavily oiled after BP's Macondo well gushed somewhere between 134 million and 170 million gallons of crude oil into the rich Gulf waters.

The oil came ashore along some 1,100 miles of coastline -- about the distance from Savannah to Boston -- contaminating the wetlands that form the nursery of the Gulf. Oil settled across at least 1,200 square miles of deep ocean floor, destroying coral and seaweed that sustain reef fish, crabs, lobsters and other deep water life. And it spread across surface waters across an area the size of Oklahoma, causing severe birth defects in bluefin tuna, mahi-mahi, amberjack and other fish whose eggs float on the sea until hatching.

We can't undump this oil. We can't undo this damage. And we can't make this right, no matter how much BP spends trying to convince us we can.

Offshore oil and gas production there is no safer and, by some measures, even more dangerous than at the time of the spill. Last year in the Gulf, injuries, fires, spills and other accidents were about 7 percent higher, per producing well, than in 2009, the year before the BP blowout.

Overall, hazardous accidents and injuries in the Gulf are down about 14 percent. Oil and gas activity there has fallen even faster, though, by about 20 percent since 2009, as the industry has focused on expanding onshore development of shale fields using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, techniques.

That's why, well per well, injuries and mishaps are up.

And that's in the warm and relatively placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Arctic Ocean is a very different body of water, a place choked with pack ice eight months of the year, roiled by gale force winds and 25-foot seas, a place where we lack the equipment, know-how or experience to prevent, contain or clean up oil gushing from a runaway well.

That's what the Shell oil company learned when it tried to drill a handful of exploratory wells in August 2012. Within hours of arriving at the drill site, the crew had to dodge an ice floe 30 miles long. An underwater containment vessel Shell claimed could bottle up a gusher collapsed like a soda can in testing. And, within months, Shell lost control of two drilling rigs, one of which grounded on rocks and had to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The oil industry is no match for the Arctic Ocean. And we don't need to expose the Eastern Seaboard to a BP-style disaster.

Both the industry and the federal government have taken steps to mitigate the risks of what is an inherently dangerous industrial operation at sea. We haven't, though, made it safe -- and we never will.

Opening up Atlantic and Arctic waters to drilling would lock the next generation into burning oil and gas in a way that only makes climate change that much worse, fueling ever rising seas, widening deserts, withering drought, blistering heat, raging storms, wildfires, floods and other hallmarks of climate chaos.

We have an obligation to protect future generations from the mounting dangers of climate change, not consign them to an ever-deepening addiction to the fossil fuel that is driving the problem.

Instead of going to the ends of the Earth -- and plumbing the depths of the oceans -- to squeeze out every last drop of oil, we need, instead, to do everything we can to reduce the risks of offshore oil and gas production. We need to reduce, not expand, the amount of ocean exposed to those risks. And we need to reduce our reliance on oil and gas and all the danger and destruction they bring.

We owe that to the people of the Gulf of Mexico. We owe it to the wildlife there. We owe it to the memory of the 11 men who lost their lives aboard the Deepwater Horizon five years ago this week.


Frances Beinecke is the former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

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