Ten years after Deepwater Horizon, offshore drilling remains a threat

Ten years after Deepwater Horizon, our president is now a constant ally of fossil fuels, lowering safety standards while seeking to allow or increase drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Gulf of Mexico. (Photo via Unified Command Joint Information Center.)

By: Kaden McArthur, Legislative Coordinator

Ten years ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded causing an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that would continue for nearly three months and result in the largest marine oil spill in history. The total volume of the spill was estimated at nearly five million barrels of oil, only about 25% of which was removed from the ocean. Oil polluted an estimated 60,000 square miles of open ocean and more than 1,300 miles of coastline. Thousands in the oil, fishing and tourism industries lost their livelihoods. It was one of the most devastating environmental disasters in history.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, at least 93 species of bird were exposed to oil by Deepwater Horizon, including brown and white pelicans, laughing gulls, northern gannets, common loons and several species of tern. A 2017 study found that birds with even relatively small amounts of oil present sustained damage to their red blood cells and had evidence of anemia, which can adversely affect reproduction and survival. (Photo via Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.)

Ten years later, the Gulf is still recovering, and offshore drilling remains a dirty and dangerous endeavor. Fishing communities have yet to bounce back from the tremendous economic shock and the marine environment still suffers from the impacts. Yet the Trump administration has rolled back offshore safety rules put in place in response to Deepwater Horizon at the same time it is proposing to open nearly all federal waters to drilling, including holding the largest offshore lease sale in U.S. history by offering 78 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico.

Efforts to increase drilling are absurd with oil markets currently in freefall amid experiencing the lowest demand in twenty-five years. Still, President Trump has made clear his intentions to expand offshore drilling throughout the nation’s public waters, including protected areas in the Gulf, Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic. Faced with this administration’s rampant actions to roll back safety rules and increase offshore drilling, we must continue fighting to avoid repeating the same mistakes from causing the next big spill.

The Trump administration’s new 2019-2024 Draft Proposed Program outlined radical plans to expand future oil and gas leasing to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as off Florida’s Gulf Coast. (Oceana)

The threat of another oil spill like Deepwater Horizon is reason enough to stop moving forward with regulatory rollbacks and increased offshore drilling. And organizations and congressional leaders are now calling to protect 30% of our lands and waters by 2030, even more of a reason to stop the unprecedented expansion of offshore drilling.

The Trump administration is currently litigating its attempt to rescind President Obama’s 2015 and 2016 withdrawals of large portions of the Arctic Ocean from oil leasing. The Obama administration protected 125 million acres of Arctic waters as ecologically sensitive marine environments via the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, but in 2017 President Trump signed an executive order seeking to undo that action. 

(Via U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.)

The move triggered a lawsuit from several conservation organizations including Alaska Wilderness League, and so far a federal district court has held that the Obama withdrawals “will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s proposed five-year offshore drilling plan includes six oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic Ocean — it calls for nineteen lease sales off the coast of Alaska and a total of forty-seven lease sales off the American coast, though that plan is currently on hold.

To be clear: there is no safe option for drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean would be devastating. There is no effective way to clean up an oil spill in the remote Arctic — the region lacks necessary infrastructure to adequately support safe drilling or clean-up efforts. A report from the U.S. Department of the Interior showed a 75% chance of a major oil spill (more than 1,000 barrels) if drilling moves forward in portions the Arctic Ocean. The closest coast guard station to the Arctic Ocean is in Valdez, more than 1,000 miles away on Alaska’s southern coast. Given the lack of nearby infrastructure, an oil spill would have a 90% chance of hitting land and spreading into protected areas across the Arctic coast including Hanna Shoal, Peard Bay and Kasegaluk Lagoon, areas that are home to critical habitat and migration corridors for polar bears, whales, walrus, seals and seabirds. Because of these dangers, legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to keep drilling out of Arctic waters.

Not only is spilled oil a threat, the untapped oil and gas reserves in the Arctic Ocean are an enormous source of carbon dioxide. There are an estimated 23.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Arctic Ocean, reserves with the potential to release an estimated 15.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — equal to the emissions from all U.S. transportation for nearly a decade. Drilling in the Arctic Ocean would be a climate disaster.

Ten years ago, we were suffering from the first impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill. On our current trajectory, ten years from now we could be facing Arctic oil spills and continuing to intensify climate change through our reliance on fossil fuels. Instead we should be working to protect our oceans from the threat of offshore drilling so that ten years from now, in 2030, we will have achieved the goal of protecting at least 30% of our lands and waters across the country.