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Ten years after Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Trump administration weakens regulations

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

A decade ago on April 20, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig leased by BP was working a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico when a surge in pressure and a blowout triggered a fire that killed 11 crew members and unleashed the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

For much of that summer, many Americans were transfixed by an online “spill cam” that broadcast live images of the crude oil billowing out from the broken blowout preventer. Many Americans called for a boycott of BP, heavy penalties or the end of federal leases.

Today, however, attention has shifted to President Trump’s efforts to undo safety steps taken by the Obama administration to prevent such a spill from happening again.

In 2016, the Obama administration imposed the Well Control Rule, a package of safety measures including backup mechanisms on blowout preventers, regular tests of safety equipment, and independent inspectors so that the public no longer relies on the companies to police themselves.

Since coming into office, however, the Trump administration demonstrated it would roll back those rules by eliminating the need for independent inspectors. That followed the issuance of approximately 1,700 waivers to an industry the administration’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) said was bearing “unnecessary burdens.”

The blowout preventer “was the main mechanical failure that, along with many operational mistakes, led to the series of events that produced the catastrophe,” said Paul Bledsoe, a public policy strategist who served as a senior staffer on the presidential commission that investigated the accident. “It brings us sort of back to the self-policing procedures that were in place before the disaster.”

Yet in the decade since the spill, much has changed — and much hasn’t.

For all the advances in shale oil technology, the United States and other countries remain heavily dependent on deepwater drilling, a daunting engineering challenge in seas so deep that even military submarines cannot venture there. U.S. oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is greater than ever before, just under 2 million barrels a day in January, up a third over the 1.5 million barrels a day in the month the Deepwater Horizon caught fire, toppled over and sank to the ocean floor.

Today, BP and Royal Dutch Shell remain the biggest oil producers in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the potential for another catastrophe, the public appetite for oil has encouraged the petroleum industry to treat those risks as acceptable. “It is high risk and high reward,” said Pavel Molchanov, senior analyst at the investment firm Raymond James.

Although the oil and gas industry prides itself on having avoided new catastrophes, there have been a large number of smaller incidents. The U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center has received notifications from companies and other observers that there were 13,187 spills in the federal waters off the Gulf of Mexico from the time of the BP spill through March, according to data compiled by SkyTruth, a satellite analysis firm.

The biggest has been the long-running spill from Taylor Energy wells that were swept away in an underwater mudslide in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan. An analysis by Oscar Garcia-Pineda, a geoscience consultant, estimated in 2018 that between 1.5 million barrels and 3.5 million barrels had spilled from the site since the damage.

Taylor insists that less than one drop of oil per minute, or less than three gallons each day, is being released from Mississippi Canyon 20 where the platform went down. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that up to 108 barrels of oil per day — more than 4,500 gallons — is flowing from the site about 12 miles off the coast of Venice, La.

A 14-year-long oil spill verges on becoming one of the worst in U.S. history

All this has played out against the industry’s success in altering safety regulations. Debra Phillips, senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute, says the steps taken by the Trump administration “have been mischaracterized as rollbacks.” She said they were a “modernization of regulations.”

Yet Michael Bromwich, who ran the BSEE under President Barack Obama, said that the steps taken by the Trump administration were unjustified and that before adopting the regulations, the agency had “balanced the concerns of industry against the need to enhance safety and environmental protection.”

Bromwich also noted that the current BSEE director, Scott Angelle, has referred to the offshore industry as “partners” with the agency. “Just imagine the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission referring to corporate America in that way,” Bromwich said. “That’s not the language used by a regulator towards the industry he or she regulates.”

During the covid-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has further eased reporting requirements, and John Amos, president of SkyTruth, said the number of spills reported has dropped by about 40 percent.

However, no regulation would have prevented the Taylor accident, said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society and a pipeline expert who advised the Interior Department on the its safety report after the BP accident. She doesn’t find that reassuring.

The spills are, in a sense, part of the cost of doing business in deep water.

A war chest for safety

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was named for the Trans­ocean rig BP had hired to drill the Macondo well, named for the fictional town in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Over 87 days, 3.2 million barrels poured into the gulf, and 810,000 barrels more were captured by BP. Halliburton, the Big Oil services firm, was also blamed for faulty cementing of the well, and Cameron, the maker of the blowout preventer, was scrutinized over the the device’s failure.

Some of the same type of spill-control equipment fashioned on the fly then is now warehoused at two places along the gulf shoreline to be used in the event of another BP-like spill. One is the capping stack taller than a two-story building with a maximum weight of 155 metric tons, about the same size as 60 full-size SUVs and heavy enough to quash a well.

Another safety measure is a system to apply dispersants whose effectiveness is still a matter of dispute among environmentalists. Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University professor who assisted in the writing of NOAA’s report, said that dispersants decreased the volume of surface oil by about 20 percent but increased the area of oil dispersed by over 50 percent.

In a best-case scenario, with mild weather and calm seas and depending on the condition of the well, the safety equipment would need to be shipped to the trouble spot and be able to cap a well to shut off the flow of fluids within a week, said Marine Well Containment Company, a consortium of Big Oil firms tasked with spill response. That would be very fast compared to the Deepwater Horizon incident, but for a well the size of BP’s, as many as 320,000 barrels could still pour into the gulf during one week.

Lessons for BP

One company that won’t forget the spill anytime soon is BP.

During a tense meeting at the White House in 2010 while the spill was still going, the company agreed to pay $20 billion. Eventually, it paid $75 billion in clean-water fees, legal settlements, grants to Gulf Coast researchers and state governments. In doing so, it shed some of the company’s prized possessions such as two other Gulf of Mexico fields. It was enough to build an entirely new company.

The company ousted its chief executive, Tony Hayward, and installed Bob Dudley, a mild-mannered executive who hailed originally from Mississippi, an unusual choice for the company formerly known as British Petroleum.

The oil giant that was ‘forced to shrink to greatness’

The company says it has taken a variety of steps to prevent the spill from reoccurring. All drilling teams in the Gulf of Mexico train on interactive simulators replicating nearly every critical job on an offshore drilling rig, BP says. Once on the job, the drilling teams are monitored by BP’s Houston operating center. A fleet of drones and underwater robotic crawlers inspect its offshore facilities.

Recently, the top job at BP has gone to Bernard Looney, who has promised to make the company net zero for carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, including the firm’s own operations and the emissions released all the way to the customers who generate emissions when they drive their vehicles.

“The Deepwater Horizon accident forever changed BP,” the company said in a statement for the anniversary, declining to make any executives available. “We will never forget the 11 people who lost their lives, nor the damage caused.”

Battles for Louisiana's coast

One of the events Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) had planned for this week was to be held at the feet of a mermaid sculpture called “Lady of the Gulf” at Port Fourchon. The sculpture is a revealing image of a mermaid whose open robe is decorated on the inside with a drilling rig theme. “I long for answers to the mysteries you hold / From the beautiful sunsets / To the legendary stories of old . . . ” reads an inscription below the statue.

From the shores of Louisiana, the BP spill is part of a larger picture of pollution and erosion that has been going on for decades.

“The damage done to south Louisiana’s environment was done to a coast already under a condition of deterioration,” said Chip Kline, executive assistant to Edwards and chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Since the 1930s, when oil companies began wide-scale dredging, close to 2,000 square miles of wetlands have been submerged. “The BP oil spill in and of itself did extensive damage, but it also further exacerbated factors causing land loss in ecosystems and estuaries.”

In addition, Kline said, Louisiana doesn’t have sandy beaches. Instead, the marshes and wetlands were more difficult to clean, making it more difficult to protect birds. He said he has a photo of a brown pelican with oiled wings.

Now, as part of the BP settlement, Louisiana will get $8 billion over 15 years. It has already received part of that and has funded nine projects that have created or benefited more than 3,400 acres. Two more, when completed, will have created or benefited 1,401 acres of marshland for a total of 7.5 square miles — a tiny step, but without stabilizing the region, Louisiana could lose another 4,000 square miles of land over the next 50 years.

This war on land loss is increasingly focused on rising seas caused by climate change — and the carbon emissions from oil and gas that cause climate change.

“As tragic an accident as Deepwater Horizon was, the restoration in the gulf shows how nature can heal itself with time, just as the Hudson River and so many other places have,” said Jason Bordoff, founding head of Columbia University’s global energy center. “But climate change does not work that way. Once a ton of CO2 is emitted, it is going to stay up there for a very long time. Most tragic environmental errors can be remedied in a decade or two, but not climate change.”

And now the oil companies are carrying on drilling in the midst of a pandemic that has knocked oil prices down to inflation-adjusted levels not seen for half a century. Trump administration talks about expanding offshore lease sales have generated very little interest among the big companies, leery of political fights with states and worried about financial constraints.

The companies have already started to cut back. On April 17, there were just 17 rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico, six fewer than a year earlier, according to the Baker Hughes rig count.

“How could we be so unprepared to develop tests to deal with a pandemic?” Bordoff said. “Partly it’s a result of years and years of campaigning against government. But undermining government has consequences, as covid-19 shows us. Deepwater Horizon was a reminder that consequences could be pretty significant when we hollow out environmental regulations as well.”