As weathered oil and dead marine life continue to wash up on Gulf shores, environmentalists worry that America has failed to heed the lessons of the summer of 2010, when an ocean of oil gushed from a broken pipe, and mesmerized a nation.
On a hot summer day in June, representatives from some of the world's richest oil companies gathered at the Superdome in New Orleans, where Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared, "[The] Gulf of Mexico is back in business," as he kicked off a federal auction of 39 million acres of offshore drilling leases.
The auction was the Obama administration's second big sale of Gulf of Mexico leases since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster claimed the lives of 11 workers and released more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. BP bid nearly $240 million that day, just two years after the catastrophic blowout, and gobbled up 43 drilling leases in the same central region of the Gulf where the company struggled for months to stop the oil gushing from the now-infamous Macondo well.
Six weeks after the auction, Hurricane Isaac spewed tar balls and large oil slicks along the Gulf shore, from Alabama to Louisiana. Lab tests confirmed the storm had churned up remnants from the massive BP spill, a grim reminder that oil continues to impact ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tar balls are not the only reminder washing up on shore. Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) linked unusually high numbers of dead and beached dolphins to the oil spill. But don't expect to hear much about dead dolphins or tall balls on the campaign trail. Environmentalists say our leaders are suffering from oil spill "amnesia."
"The federal government is failing to learn from one of the most environmentally and economically destructive incidents in US history," said David Pettit, a senior attorney for the NRDC. "Fresh oil from the Macondo well continues to wash ashore ... and the government is being negligent by issuing leases to drill now and drill deeper without ensuring all necessary precautions."
Pettit told Truthout that, despite reforms to deep-water drilling regulation made since the BP spill, regulators continue to issue drilling permits without the detailed analysis necessary to understand the potential environmental impacts on already damaged ecosystems. On his blog, Pettit explains that the design flaw in Cameron-style blowout preventers like those that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster still exists today.
And what about responding to another spill? The Macondo well spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of oil and natural gas into the Gulf while BP struggled to permanently seal it; but since the disaster, regulators and the industry have only performed one successful deep-water field test, at only one specific depth, of new well-cap technology in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, drilling and leasing continues.
Obama, Romney and "Drill Baby Drill"
The White House recently announced its next big lease auction, scheduled for March 2013, of 38 million acres in the central Gulf of Mexico off the coasts of Louisiana and Alabama. The sales are part of President Obama's "all of the above" energy security plan, which includes a dozen lease sales in oil-rich areas of the Gulf of Mexico and three sales off the Alaskan coast within the next five years.
The administration estimates the March 2013 sale alone could lead to the production of 1 billion barrels of oil. The auction held this past June netted $1.7 billion in revenue.
Republicans routinely hammer President Barack Obama on the economy and energy policy, and now the White House boldly touts its efforts to boost oil production. The White House is quick to point out that domestic oil production was higher in 2011 than any time in the past eight years. Production is up, thanks in part to the inland oil and gas rush facilitated by fracking, but the industry continues to complain that the number of drilling leases made available on public lands has hit a historic low under Obama.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney apparently suffers from an acute case of oil spill amnesia. His energy policy white papers do not specifically mention the disaster, however they obliquely attack Obama for slowing oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and "illegally" imposing a moratorium on drilling.
Obama did temporarily halt drilling for about five months during the initial cleanup effort despite legal challenges from the industry, but environmentalists had hoped he would give the Gulf of Mexico more time to recover before allowing drilling to continue.
Romney promises to aggressively expand offshore drilling, including off the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas, and to quickly approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline that Obama left in political limbo until 2013. As of August, Romney's campaign has enjoyed more than $6 million in direct donations from the energy and natural resources sector, while the Obama campaign received $1.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
For Obama, the oil spill was a serious headache, but at least the White House acknowledges that it happened, with assurances of regulatory reform when announcing its massive lease sales. The spill brought global scrutiny on the White House, which was accused of downplaying the initial size of the spill.
To the administration's credit, the Justice Department has aggressively pursued BP, and following an investigation of industry practices and the Deepwater Horizon blowout itself, regulators wrote new rules for the industry and revamped their own standards of operation while conducting an "extensive environmental review" of the ongoing lease sales. Environmental groups, however, say these efforts do not go far enough.
Green Groups Fight Oil Spill Amnesia
Over the past year, the NRDC and a coalition of environmental groups have sued the government to stop the Obama administration's first two oil lease auctions, arguing that ocean drilling regulators have ignored crucial lessons learned from the BP spill and failed to gather essential information on ecosystems and endangered species still suffering from the disaster. The lawsuits remain pending in federal court as the lease sales continue, and Pettit said the groups are waiting to gauge the court's reaction before challenging future leases.
Federal regulators have implemented reforms since the disaster, including a reorganization of regulatory agencies and the implementation of a recusal policy for regulators to deal with suspected conflicts of interest. The NRDC and its allies, however, say regulators and the industry have not proven that they are prepared to prevent and cope with another deep-water spill.
"Without new and fully-tested procedures in place to guard against future blowouts, and improved post-spill containment and cleanup systems, we are risking a repeat of the BP disaster two years ago," said Pettit. "Increased drilling and exploration coupled with possible new oil spills would wreak havoc on an ecosystem that has a tenuous grip on existence."
The industry's ability to cap a leaking deep-water well after a blowout preventer fails continues to be a key concern. The Macondo well below the Deepwater Horizon spewed oil for five months before it was permanently capped in September 2010. The industry has developed new technology since the spill, but Pettit told Truthout that he has yet to be convinced that the new systems are sufficient to stop another ecological disaster.
One deep-water containment system, the Helix, was developed by a consortium of gas drilling firms, but has only been tested theoretically on desktops with model exercises, not in the ocean itself. In fact, a full-scale test of how regulators and the industry would respond to another runaway offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico was not completed until July 30, 2012, when Shell successfully tested a new capping stack 6,900 feet below the surface of the Gulf.
"I was glad to see the ... test work out. But things didn't go so well for Shell in Alaska," Pettit said in a reference to Shell's recent decision to temporarily suspend a controversial drilling operation off Alaska's north coast after an oil spill containment dome malfunctioned during a test run last month.
"I don't think we know enough to be comfortable yet. I'd like to see a no-advance-notice test in deep water 50 miles off of [the] Gulf Coast," Pettit said.
Several well-capping systems have been developed and "are tested regularly," although the Shell test was the first and only field test in deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, according to a statement from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which was created in 2011 as part of the reorganization of offshore regulatory agencies following the spill. The bureau told Truthout that more tests are planned for the future.
BSEE reports that regulators have beefed up requirements for blowout prevention systems since Deepwater Horizon. For example, drillers must now have a third party verify that their blowout preventers can cut "any drill pipe in the hole under maximum ... pressure." Drillers must also keep a remotely operated submarine vehicle on hand in case of an emergency.
In the months following the BP spill, Pettit and other environmentalists applauded the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) when regulators decided to restrict the use of "categorical exclusions" that allowed many drilling operations - including the doomed Deepwater Horizon - to receive permits without a complete environmental review. Pettit has now changed his tune, and even though BOEM claims to conduct site-specific environmental assessments for exploratory drilling projects, Pettit claims the resulting documents from different sites are "virtually identical" and fail to examine the unique geology and biology of individual drill sites.
Many of the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico are much different today than they were before BP's Deepwater Horizon spill. Regulators, however, still rely on pre-spill biological surveys when conducting their environmental reviews, according to Pettit.
Many species of wildlife were impacted by the spill, some of them endangered, and that needs to be taken into account before drilling permits are issued. For this reason, Pettit believes environmentalists could unleash a powerful legal weapon and challenge the ongoing lease sales under the Endangered Species Act. But with two lawsuits already pending in federal court and millions of acres worth of deep-water drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico already up for grabs, it remains unclear if those who refuse to forget about the oil spill will have their day in court.