5 Years After Deepwater Horizon Disaster: Could It Happen Again?

5 Years After Deepwater Horizon Disaster: Could It Happen Again?

(Click to enlarge) 5 Years After Deepwater Horizon Disaster: Could It Happen Again?

Deep in the Gulf of Mexico, far from public sight but still under close scrutiny by scientists, federal agencies and the energy industry, a massive smear of oil sits at the bottom of the ocean like a dirty bath tub ring.

(From Bradenton.com / by Jenny Staletovich) — The ring is the remnant of the worst offshore drilling catastrophe in U.S. history — the April 20, 2010, explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and spilled at least three million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during an 87-day struggle to cap a deep-sea gusher.

In the five years since, federal and industry probes have detailed a string of shortcuts, errors and lax oversight that combined to trigger the blowout. Regulators once cozy with the industry were reorganized. Drillers were forced to admit that safety measures had not kept pace with the heightened risks of deep ocean exploration.

With the Gulf serving as a vast Petri dish, scientists have collected an unprecedented amount of data that led to new discoveries about how oil and water mix and how petrochemicals damage sea life — though they stress it will take more than a half decade to understand long-term effects on the complex system.

For all the billions spent — BP calculates the total at more than $29 billion so far — two thing are clear: The oil and gas industry will keep drilling and, despite tougher safety standards and better response plans, there is no guarantee it won’t happen again.

“This is such a high-risk business, even the most aggressive programs can’t give you an insurance policy against another spill,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the presidential commission that investigated the blowout and ways to stop future ones.

Five years later, that’s among the most sobering of lessons from The Big Spill.

For the families of the eleven men who died on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, it has been five years of heartache and visits to empty graves. One widow and her children have found a way to move forward, without forgetting what was lost. (Video credit: AP)

Standards tough enough?

Even before the blowout, the Macondo well — named after the fictional village in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude after BP auctioned the naming rights for a United Way fundraiser — was in trouble, behind schedule and over budget.

Located a mile below the ocean’s surface, the well had been drilled another 2.5 miles beneath the sea floor and was under intense pressure. At some point, investigators found, oil started moving up the bore hole and into combustible well fluids, triggering a massive explosion on the Deepwater surface rig.

In the years since, the Obama administration has written new rules to improve equipment critical in the Deepwater failure, though some have taken quite awhile. On Monday, the administration proposed new rules for blowout preventers — a device attached to the wellhead that proved to be the most critical flaw in the Deepwater explosion.

Calls for a regulatory agency to oversee safety — akin to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission created after the Three-Mile Island reactor meltdown in 1979 — have gone unanswered.

Instead, critics say energy companies still are allowed to largely police themselves.

The industry-controlled American Petroleum Institute established two command posts in Texas and Louisiana, something that didn’t exist before, outfitted with equipment and emergency teams to rapidly respond to spills. About a hundred new industry standards all emphasize safety, said Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council.

“There’s always been a great emphasis on safety, but the attitude now toward zero accidents and incidents is probably higher across the industry,” he said.

U.S. Department of Interior officials point to a drop in injuries and accidents tied to drilling in the Gulf of about 14 percent from 2009 numbers. Critics note the number of operating wells declined at the same time.

“It’s like saying we had fewer concussions by playing fewer football games,” said Bob Deans, Director of Strategic Engagement for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Bob Bea — an expert on risk management, a former Shell executive and civil engineering professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley — believes new federal regulations haven’t gone far enough for an industry that has historically pushed the envelope on its technology.

“There is no speedometer,” he said. “Commercial aviation had to go through the same historic transition as nuclear power. I want to feel that on these offshore rigs, but I don’t.”

Gulf Petri Dish

Though direct exposure to the slick took a heavy toll on sea life — from plankton to shrimp to oysters and larval tuna — the spill did not wipe out the Gulf as some environmentalists feared. Initially, scientists found its warm waters remarkably resilient. One study found natural bacteria had helped gobble up much of the oil.

Subsequent work has begun to reveal wider and potentially lingering ripple effects. Last year, University of Miami researchers discovered oil, even at low levels, could impair the swimming of baby mahi-mahi, said University of Miami ichthyologist Martin Grosell, who teaches at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“These fish looked fine and perfectly healthy until they were put to the test,” he said in an email.

Grosell also found oil caused potentially fatal heart damage to bluefin tuna, already overfished and fighting a population decline of about 40 percent over the last 75 years. The Gulf is one of only two spawning grounds worldwide for the fish.

Among the most disturbing trends was a spike in bottlenose dolphin deaths that began before the spill. Any link to the spill remains uncertain.

One of the biggest surprises for Graham was just how little had been learned about the environmental impacts of oil spills after the Exxon Valdez coated 1,300 miles of Alaska coast in oozy crude in 1989.

“There hadn’t been much progress in 20 years,” he said.

The BP spill has begun to change that. Within a month of the accident, BP offered to fund $550 million in research, and set up the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative headed by former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell. The initiative, governed by a 19-member panel of scientists with about 2,100 participating so far, decided to focus research on five broad categories: biology, chemistry, geology, oceanography and public health over 10 years.

“Most studies are funded for three to five years,” Colwell said. “To have a 10-year coordinated study is absolutely magnificent.”

Read the full article on the Bradenton Herald website.

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