The BP Blowout: Five Years Hence, Not Much Has Changed

FILE -  In this Wednesday, April 21, 2010 file photo, oil can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of
FILE - In this Wednesday, April 21, 2010 file photo, oil can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. Legal battles arising from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill play out in two federal courts this coming week. On Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, trial resumes in a federal district courtroom where BP and a minority partner in its ill-fated Macondo well are trying to fend off billions in Clean Water Act penalties. On Tuesday, federal appeals court judges hear an appeal in which BP seeks the ouster of the man overseeing payments to businesses claiming harm from the spill. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Tonight at 9:50 p.m. we mark the fifth anniversary of the worst oil blowout in U.S. history, one that took the lives of 11 men and spilled over 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At the height of the crisis in the late spring of 2010, we, as a society, had a moment in time to grapple with an energy future fueled by an insatiable appetite for hydrocarbons. The moment passed, and we failed seize that moment. True to form, our elected leaders simply kicked the can down the road, confident in the short memory and shallow engagement of the American electorate on issues that are critical and generational to all of us. After a brief interlude and rearranging of deck chairs, the U.S. government resumed issuing deepwater-drilling permits with no substantial improvements in drilling technologies or requirements.

Today BP is still in court, fighting the U.S. government over its own culpability in the blowout, and even went all the way to the Supreme Court to appeal the financial settlement that it had negotiated three years before, claiming the company didn't really mean to agree to what it had agreed to in the original settlement. The court rejected its appeal last December. In recent years government agencies have gone easy on BP, as has the press, having long since moved on to covering the latest contestants on The Voice and breathlessly reporting on the Ebola outbreak in Africa, at least up to election day last November.

BP's biggest accomplishment since the blowout? Succeeding in obfuscating the amount of oil that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico over those 87 days in 2010. The amount of oil that fouled the Gulf will determine the amount of the fine that BP will ultimately pay. Even though BP had equipment on site in the Gulf to contain the entire flow of the well, BP never actually captured (or measured) 100 percent of the flow. Not measuring total flow allowed BP to argue that we really couldn't calculate the actual number of barrels that spilled, and that argument worked. The consensus from the scientific community was that the well released over 5 million barrels into the Gulf (4.2 million after collection efforts). BP argued that mysteriously it was only 2.5 million barrels after collection. In January, Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans split the baby, calling it 3.2 million barrels. The lower number will save BP billions of dollars in fines. After getting a huge break from the court, BP, of course, is appealing. The company is also arguing that its U.S. unit can only afford to pay $2.3 billion or it will go insolvent, ignoring its parent's global presence and resources. The court battles continue.

As long as we burn hydrocarbons to fuel our economy -- and that is for the foreseeable future -- we must find those hydrocarbons more safely. That includes in extreme deepwater environments where the margin for error is narrow, if not zero in certain conditions. Earlier this month, almost five years after the BP disaster, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued proposed rules touting improved safety standards, but these rules really just codify current drilling practices adopted after the blowout. It does improve blowout-preventer-centering capability, a key failure in the BP blowout, and increases accumulator size, which increases the capability to close the BOP. It also mandates redundancy in shear rams by mandating a minimum of two shear rams in the stack. All that helps, but the real problem here? Congress. Congress has been M.I.A. since the 2010 elections, killing all legislation to put new rules into law or increasing the statutory limit for liability, which is still pegged at $75 million, as it has been since adoption in 1990. As long as Congress shirks its responsibility to govern, all these changes made to offshore drilling safety can easily be undone by a future president more friendly to the oil and gas industry.

We are at the five-year mark from this tragedy. Unlike virtually every other developed country on the planet, there have been no proposals from our government for comprehensive U.S. energy policy. Many states are seeking to undo clean air standards and kill alternative fuels, including wind and solar. With oil price now in a 50-percent decline, burning of hydrocarbons continues unabated, and our politicians are clearly more concerned about their own reelection and satisfying their largest donors who are contributing into huge pools of dark money than actually governing. I fear that we are, once again, at risk for another Macondo-like event. When (not if) it happens again, my fervent hope is that the American electorate finally wakes up and demands accountability from those who represent us. I'm not optimistic. I mean, after all, Dancing With the Stars is on tonight.

Note: The Great Invisible, the award-winning documentary about the the BP oil spill and its aftermath, airs tonight on PBS' Independent Lens. The film was produced by Peabody winner Margaret Brown. I was proud to play a small part in the making of the film.