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We know how to prevent the next Deepwater Horizon spill: stop fast-tracking approval for drilling 

Fourteen years ago, the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig suffered a blowout in water a mile deep. The Gulf of Mexico explosion took the lives of 11 people, released 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over 87 straight days, wreaked widespread ecological harm, displaced communities, and devastated local economies. 

Ultimately, the worst oil spill in U.S. history cost $17.2 billion in damage. President Obama appointed me to the national commission to investigate the causes of this disaster. 

Through the course of our investigation, my colleagues and I discovered that (in addition to multiple direct errors) the Interior Department had performed no meaningful analysis of the potentially significant environmental consequences when it considered BP’s applications for Deepwater Horizon. Instead, the government had essentially rubber-stamped BP’s exploration plans and drilling permits using a decades-old policy to exempt them from the typically mandatory environmental review. Known as a “categorical exclusion,” this became a routine practice — one that the Interior Department continues to regularly employ. 

In 1978, faced with looming oil shortages, Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to promote offshore development of oil and gas resources. The act expressly singled out the Gulf of Mexico, which is the source of about 97 percent of all U.S. offshore oil and gas production, for less rigorous oversight under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Interior Department then created the categorical exclusion policy to further bolster oil production. This allowed the government to fast-track approval of oil companies’ offshore drilling permits, declaring them not subject to the rigorous oversight normally required under NEPA. 

Our commission’s investigation also uncovered troubling evidence that government personnel responsible for reviewing offshore oil drilling permits were made to understand that flagging environmental concerns would “increase the burden” on oil companies by “creating unnecessary delays.” And it was also evident that staffers were simply too under-resourced to meet the extraordinary expansion of oil development in the Gulf. 

To be clear, the Interior Department had conducted general environmental reviews evaluating impacts of oil and gas development in the Gulf at large. But by using categorical exclusion, the government did not analyze the unique risks at the Deepwater Horizon site, thereby failing to account for the geological complexity and susceptible deep-sea life specific to that area in the Gulf. 

At the close of the investigation, our commission recommended that the Interior Department strengthen its oversight procedures through the oil exploration and development process.  

Six years later, the department issued a memorandum directing the discontinuation of categorical exclusions for offshore oil project approvals. However, the policy revision was never published in the Federal Register. Then, in 2017, under President Trump, the government reversed course and reinstated fast-tracking approvals for offshore oil drilling. 

Fast forward to today, and the categorical exclusion still hasn’t been retired, while many other things have greatly changed concerning energy and the Gulf of Mexico. Over the last 14 years, offshore oil and gas exploration and production has continued to shift into waters even deeper and riskier than where BP was drilling. Human-caused climate change has become more obvious, with the waters of the Gulf warming faster than the world’s oceans as a whole. This is setting the stage for increasingly powerful hurricanes, making offshore drilling even more dangerous. While oil production in the Gulf has been generally steady, reserves are being depleted, leaving the Gulf littered with unproductive platforms, inadequately plugged wells and 18,000 miles of abandoned pipeline on the seabed. 

Over the same period, as a result of inland fracking, U.S. crude oil production has dramatically increased and is at an all-time high. Our country has become a net exporter of crude oil, with more than twice as much of it shipped from Gulf ports than produced in the offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  

Yet, there is global commitment to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe. This necessitates commensurate reduction in burning of fossil fuels and expansion of renewable energy. It is new renewable energy — wind, solar, and geothermal — that we must be fast-tracking (with appropriate environmental precautions), not more environmentally damaging production of fossil fuels. 

Over the past five years, the Interior Department has fast-tracked approvals for more than 90 percent of proposed offshore oil projects, yet additional oil spills from risky wells have continued, including this year. It’s long past time to discontinue the routine use of categorical exclusions for offshore oil and gas development. This simple policy change could be the difference between setting the stage for the next Deepwater Horizon disaster and steering clear of another catastrophe — before it’s too late. 

Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science, served as president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and vice chancellor for Environmental Sustainability. 

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