Sightings from the Treehouse: Drill Baby, Drill

On April 20, 2010 one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up and unleashed a geyser of oil buried a mile below the surface.  By the time it ended 87 days later, an estimated 130 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico’s bountiful waters and disrupted thriving ecosystems from Texas to Florida.  Had the leak continued, the oil could have gone around Florida and likely ended up in the Gulf Stream contaminating the entire East coast’s shorelines and coastal habitats.   In fact, a 2016 University of Central Florida study found dissolved oil from the spill all the way to Sanibel Island, Florida.   

Ecological impacts were far-reaching, and the National Wildlife Federation estimated some of the damage as follows:

  • Dolphins deaths were 4 times normal
  • Up to 65,000 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles died
  • Twelve percent of pelicans in northern Gulf died
  • Thirty-two percent of seagulls died
  • Fisheries suffered extensive losses during the spill
  • Marine life at every level of the food web have been affected by the oil and oil dissolved by the dispersants.

Although the full effects of the massive oil spill are not known, the immediate impacts were extensive damage to fisheries, sea bird life, commercial fishing, and tourism.  From a superficial view today, the Gulf looks fine, commercial fishing and tourism have returned, and wildlife seem to have recovered to some extent.
Countless scientific studies conducted and on-going; however, show a different result. Most of the effects now are more subtle and at the sub-ecosystem level – variations in birth rates and success, behavioral and genetic changes and microhabitat disruption.  Dispersants used to break up the oil at the wellhead and on the surface resulted in globs of oil at mid-levels and on the sea bottom.  Fortunately, natural oil-consuming bacteria present in the Gulf multiplied profusely during the spill and broke down much of the dispersed oil droplets.  Despite this breakdown, an estimated 30 million gallons of oil are still unaccounted for in the Gulf.  In 2017, BP finalized a settlement of $20.8 billion for the ecological and economic damage to the region.
A 2011 Report to the President concluded environmental oversight and regulations could not keep up with the fast pace of oil development in the Gulf spurred on by state and federal incentives.  Oil reserves were found at deeper and deeper depths, and the technology to mine this resource was advancing faster than the regulatory process could evolve.  Additionally, the industry fought increased oversight.  According to the report, “The result was a serious and ultimately inexcusable shortfall in supervision of offshore drilling that played out in the Macondo Well blowout and the catastrophic oil spill that followed.”
In 2016  regulations were established by the Obama administration to help prevent another catastrophe, and these were mainly focused on improved blowout preventers and enhanced monitoring and inspections.  These regulations and improvements in technology should make drilling somewhat safer according to National Geographic, however with the increased depths of drilling in the Gulf, the likelihood of future accidents are high.  It is a fundamentally risky business.  Since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, offshore drilling has resulted in 1,066 injuries, 496 fires and explosions, 22 losses of well control, 11 spills of at least 2,100 gallons of oil each, and 11 fatalities.  These incidents indicate not much has changed according to the 2016 Oceana Report.
Obama era rules passed in 2016 have been rolled back by the Trump Administration recently just as they are pushing to expand offshore oil drilling around the US coast and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and many national parks to oil drilling.

Many states are fighting back due to the threats to their economic lifeblood, tourism.  It is likely that countless lawsuits will be filed in each state drawing out the actual process of offshore drilling, as seen on the Southern Environmental Law Center website.
Did we learn anything from the 2010 Gulf oil spill disaster?   Apparently not, since the “fossil fuel industry owned US government” is moving full speed ahead.  The conclusions of the 2011 report to President Obama still hold true.  Will the Trump administration continue the “inexcusable shortfall of supervision of offshore drilling?” Of course!  As a result, history will likely repeat itself in the Gulf, in or near the Gulfstream on the east coast, along the Pacific coast or in the thawing Arctic regions.
An onslaught of lawsuits, public outcry and the voting booth may be the only solution at this point. As a faithful person concerned about the fate of creation, go to protectourcoastnow.com  by March 9, 2018 and submit your comments and register your opposition to offshore drilling.

Read more of the Sightings from the Treehouse Blog Series.  Sightings from the Treehouse is a blog series written by GIPL’s former Director of the Power Wise Program, Bob Donaghue.