Co-authored by Simon Mahan and Toni Reale
It seems like yesterday when the airwaves were filled with the horrifying news that an exploratory oil rig had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing eleven men and spewing unknown quantities of crude into Gulf waters. The explosion happened on April 20th 2010 and just two days later, on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the damaged rig sank to the sea floor. Hollywood couldn’t have written a more ironic and frightening script depicting the consequences of our nation’s addiction to dangerous and polluting high-risk energy.
For what would become the worst oil spill in American history, thus far, a year later, very little has been done to prevent another accident of similar magnitude from occurring. Rather, our country’s leaders are attempting to expedite drilling for oil in the most extreme of conditions in order to satisfy our ever-growing demand for crude instead of prioritizing clean, safe, renewable and efficient forms of energy. In fact, just last week members in the Republican-led House of Representatives pushed a trio of bills through committee that would actually speed up domestic oil production and weaken regulations on the oil industry. Is this the way our government commemorates the largest environmental disaster of our time?
Downward Spiral of Events
Some of the first news concerning the Deepwater Horizon (explosion and later sinking) considered the spill to be either small or non-existent. In the days that followed, flow-rate estimates ranged from the BP-approved 1,000 barrels/day to the government’s 5,000 barrels per day to an independent assessor’s 70,000 barrels per day estimate. In truth, no one knows exactly how much oil was spilled into the Gulf, but the official final count has settled around 4.9 million barrels – or about 19 times more oil than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
As the well-head continued to spew oil, a variety of solutions were presented to slow the spread of oil and stop the spill. The two most widely used options to remove the oil already spilled were to burn the oil in situ, and use dispersants whose toxicity levels still remain suspect. Approximately 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant were used in the Gulf to lessen the impact of oil reaching the coasts.
To stem the tide of oil gushing from the Gulf floor, domes, “top hats”, “top kills”, golf balls and “junk shots” permeated the solutions discussion. At one point, the nuclear option was suggested – it seemed that desperate times called for desperate measures. It wasn’t until mid-July that some workable solution materialized and the flow was finally staunched in order to cap the well.
Impacts to Unfold for Generations
The actual affects of the oil spill are still being discovered. In total, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency tasked with the daunting task of counting the dead, dying and injured wildlife, has counted hundreds of sea turtles, birds and dolphins directly impacted by the spill. Eight months after the spill, dolphins with oil from the spill are still being found in the Gulf. One year later, approximately 1,000 square miles of the waters surrounding the Deepwater Horizon are still closed to fishing. The full breadth of the impacts to human health is still unknown. Gulf spill cleanup workers are now reporting unexplained illnesses. Many believe that their mysterious illnesses are tied to the chemical dispersants used in unprecedented amounts following the spill. It is very likely that we will never be able to fully understand the impacts caused by this spill.
Congress Takes Action (for a minute, but not really)
Meanwhile, Congress has dickered about what to do about this disaster. No legislation concerning this oil spill or what to do after a future spill has made it to the President’s desk. Most recently, Congress has actually suggested that offshore oil drilling should be expedited – this time, off the coast of Virginia.
President Obama had initially issued a moratorium on new deepwater offshore oil drilling off the U.S. coast – but later rescinded that order. In fact, the Department of the Interior has recently issued its ninth permit for deepwater drilling activity in the Gulf. For now, the Atlantic coast has been spared until at least 2017; however, with the strong Congressional push to open up an area off Virginia, it remains to be seen whether even this temporary ban will remain in place.
There is a Way Out
The summer following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy released its “Southern Solutions” video highlighting ways to cut oil consumption. Approximately 10 percent of the U.S.’s oil supply comes from domestic offshore oil drilling. The solutions to Gulf oil drilling include the advancement of biofuel production, more stringent fuel efficiency standards, deployment of hybrid and electric vehicles and changing our personal lifestyle choices.
Stand Up to Restore the Gulf
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy stands with Gulf of Mexico residents and our allies such as the Gulf Restoration Network, the Natural Resource Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation and the Waterkeeper Alliance to demand that Congress take action to ensure that Gulf Coast communities and ecosystems get restored. We urge Congress to return no less that 80% of the fines collected from BP’s Clean Water Act violations to the Gulf Coast for restoration. Currently, there is no legislation in place that ensures that any of BP’s fines make their way back the the areas most impacted by the disaster.
Lessons Not learned
It is clear that lessons from this epic economic and environmental disaster have not been learned. It’s unclear that offshore oil drilling is any safer for the workers or the environment. And we are certainly no closer to energy independence than we were on April 20, 2010 – with or without offshore drilling. It is puzzling and disheartening that our elected officials choose to drill deeper and faster and more while the Gulf citizens, coast and wildlife still gently weep.