Four years ago this Sunday night, BP's Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well blew out, killing 11 workers, destroying the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible rig, and putting an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the water. The Gulf continues to suffer the effects of oil that remains, and many shore-based businesses are still struggling to get back on their feet. At the same time, our rig count in the Gulf has returned to its pre-blowout level.
Beyond the obvious effects of this massive oil spill, and the ongoing court battle between the government, plaintiffs, and BP, the question needs to be asked: After the worst offshore blowout in US history, did we learn anything? Have we changed the way we work in the offshore, and have we changed national policy to make it safer and to make ourselves less dependent on deepwater oil production? The answers to these questions, as you would expect, are not easy, and not necessarily very comforting.
There is no short answer to safety improvements, even though the industry is paying much closer attention, we really haven't changed the fundamentals of drilling in 5,000 feet of water. We use the same rigs, the same blowout preventers, the same control systems, and the same safety systems. The industry has yet to undertake an effort to change the way we operate in the deepwater, short of improving maintenance, testing, and documentation. Progress is being made by manufacturers to improve the performance of shear rams, that can cut pipe and seal the well bore, and some companies (including BP) have introduced a double-blind ram configuration for redundancy. Is deepwater drilling safer than four years ago? Only if the industry continues its vigilance.
Also, 2 well containment consortiums have been organized; the Marine Well Containment Company, with membership made up of larger integrated and independent companies, and the Helix Well Containment Group (now called the HWCG), whose members are primarily smaller independent operators. Both consortiums keep deepwater well containment equipment on 24 hour standby should a well control problem occur in the Gulf. This development is clearly an improvement since the BP blowout.
Having said that, though, there has been little, if any progress made in cleanup technology. We still use the same old boom and the same old skimmers, neither of which actually work in anything but flat water. Remember, too, that in deepwater spills, over 80 percent of the oil never comes to the surface. If you don't collect it at the wellhead, it will get into the deepwater column, affecting the marine food chain with still as yet unknown consequences. After a blowout, rapid containment is key.
Sadly, what hasn't changed in offshore policy and safety is the politics. Because of the gridlock in Washington, in addition to the huge influence of special interest money, no progress has been (or can be) made towards comprehensive energy policy and regulation of drilling in deeper and deeper water. Not that regulations are the panacea for safety, but certainly raising the bar for safety and accountability is necessary.
One glaring example of the disconnect between policy and reality is the statutory cap on liability for oil spills. The Oil Pollution Act, passed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, established a limit of $75 million for the fines levied against companies unless negligence or gross negligence is proved. After the BP blowout, Congress failed to raise the limit, so the Obama administration is attempting to do so through new rule making, opposed by the industry. Keep in mind that if the government's oil volume number stands in the BP litigation, and gross negligence is proven, the bill will exceed $18 billion. That doesn't count the $20 billion already committed to cleanup and remediation. There are only a few companies which could survive such a financial blow, meaning that, if this disaster had happened to a smaller deepwater operator, they would have easily gone toes-up, and the cleanup would have fallen to us, the taxpayers.
Most frustrating, though, is that our leaders in Washington and in the states continue to stick their heads in the sand, failing to address any comprehensive energy policies. In fact, some states, like Oklahoma, are actually going backwards by punishing homeowners who install their own solar panels or wind turbines, charging them a fee for any power they generate above what they use. Charging customers for power they deliver. Now that's constructive. The reason politicians pass these kinds of laws and abdicate their responsibility to establish sane policy? Money and ideology. Special interest money floods into cooperative politicians' coffers to symie progress. Ideology also plays a huge part with some still chanting "drill, baby, drill" as if energy policy is some kind of cheap partisan issue that lends itself to bumper sticker messaging.
The problem with energy is that it's invisible for the most part. You go to the gas station, pump gasoline that you don't see into your car, then drive around, converting that gasoline to energy and exhaust. The exhaust you can't see. You flip a switch in your house and the light comes on. Few people ever think about where that comes from, breeding complacency, the true enemy. As long as the people are complacent (and/or ignorant) politicians are happy to go from re-election cycle to re-election cycle, doing little in the way of actual governing along the way.
The problem with our lack of energy policy is us. We are taxpayers, members of a society, who, for the most part, are happy to watch The Voice or Entertainment Tonight, driving our SUVs to the store and to soccer games, not taking responsibility or actively participating in that society. As long as we do that, nothing will change; that is, at least until the next catastrophe that causes massive damage and costs lives. The politicians will take action only if we, as a society, demand it.