But three recent incidents in other parts of the world show just how risky and sensitive offshore drilling remains.
In the North Sea, French oil giant Total is still battling to regain control of a natural gas well that has been leaking for nearly four weeks. Meanwhile, Brazil has confiscated the passports of 11 Chevron employees and five employees of drilling contractor Transocean as they await trial on criminal charges related to an offshore oil spill there. And in December, about 40,000 barrels of crude oil leaked out of a five-year-old loading line between a floating storage vessel and an oil tanker in a Royal Dutch Shell field off the coast of Nigeria.
Many experts say that even with tougher regulations here in the United States, such incidents are inevitable.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it [offshore drilling], but we ought to go at it with our eyes open,” said Roger Rufe, a retired Coast Guard vice admiral. “We can’t do it with a human-designed system and not expect that there will be occasional problems with it.”
Shell is one company particularly anxious to avoid the slightest whiff of trouble. It is on the verge of getting the final two permits needed to drill this summer in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s Arctic Coast, a plan that has aroused opposition from a broad array of environmental groups.
So on April 10 when federal regulators told Shell that they had spotted a 1-by-10-mile oil sheen in the eight miles of water between two Shell production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, executives acted quickly. They promptly mobilized an oil cleanup vessel and sent two remotely operated underwater vehicles to scour the sea floor. It turned out that the oil — only six barrels — came from a natural seep common in the gulf.
“Post-Macondo, there’s no such thing as a small spill,” said an executive from another big oil company, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.
With the anniversary of the BP spill, many experts are reassessing U.S. progress since the accident. And environmentalists are assessing damages.
A National Wildlife Federation report said, for example, that the shrimp catch increased last year but that since the spill 523 dolphins have been stranded onshore, four times the historic average; 95 percent of them were dead. A team of scientists led by Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences said oysters collected post-spill contain higher concentrations of heavy metals in their shells, gills and muscle tissue than those collected before the spill.