The BP Oil Spill, One Year On: Forgetting the Lessons of Drilling in the Gulf

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Ho New / Reuters

Fireboat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast on April 21, 2010

It took just a couple of days for Admiral Thad Allen to realize how disastrous the well blowout at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig would prove to be. On April 20 last year, the well being drilled by the BP-owned rig suddenly kicked back, spurting oil and gas up the drilling pipe and setting the Deepwater Horizon aflame in the Gulf of Mexico. Crew ran for the lifeboats and even leaped into the fiery waters of the Gulf; 11 of them would die. By the time Coast Guard rescue boats arrived on the scene, the $560 million drilling rig already appeared unsalvageable, and on April 22 the Deepwater Horizon sank. "We did not know then the full impact of the spill or the results, but we knew then it would be a catastrophic event," Allen told TIME.

Indeed, the resulting blowout would spill 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The cleanup — still ongoing — would cost tens of billions, and the environmental impact remains uncertain. And more than anything else, the blowout and the 85 agonizing days it would take a joint industry-government team to finally cap the well demonstrated that oil companies lacked the ability to clean up after themselves. Surely, once this was all over, the Gulf spill would bring about a sea change in the way offshore drilling was carried out — not to mention the way it was regulated.

Yet now, a year after the oil spill began, it's still far from certain that deepwater drilling has become much safer, even as oil companies and conservatives in Congress agitate for new drilling permits. The industry has made some improvements — like keeping well-capping technology on hand — but critics say they've fallen far short of what needs to be done, while underpaid government regulators are still straining to properly oversee drilling. With gas prices rising again and the economy teetering, the push to expand offshore drilling — including into sensitive Arctic waters — is only growing stronger. "The industry and the federal agencies have made some progress," says Fran Ulmer, a member of the President's oil-spill commission and chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. "But not enough needed action has been taken."

It's true that offshore drilling today is different — and somewhat safer — than it was a year ago. A near death experience will do that. Oil and gas companies last month announced the creation of the Center for Offshore Safety, a private safety institute modeled on those used by the nuclear and chemical industries. (Foreign oil companies already have similar efforts in place.) Two industry groups have helped create new systems for capping out-of-control wells — if another blowout occurs, an oil company should be able to stem the flow of hydrocarbons much faster than the months it took to jury-rig a cap for BP's well. "The industry indicated that they had an inadequate capacity to contain another major spill and they stepped forward," says Ulmer.

Significant changes have also occurred on the regulatory side. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) — the much criticized federal agency that had been tasked with overseeing energy exploration — is no more, replaced by the tongue-twisting Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). The change wasn't made just for the sake of a longer acronym; the agency has been split up into two parts, to separate the revenue-collection office from the drilling regulators and reduce the conflicts of interest that had plagued MMS. The new director, Michael Bromwich, talks tough, and the agency has been slow and very deliberate about approving new deepwater drilling permits. "Since the blowout, the Obama Administration has made a lot of progress," says Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic program. "But more needs to be done."

Indeed, that's the message of many outside experts — drilling safety has improved, but not enough. One of the biggest obstacles has been Congress, which has largely failed to enact any legislation addressing the problem. The Deepwater Horizon accident has likely cost BP more than $40 billion, for example, but the official liability cap for oil-spill damages remains a ridiculously low $75 million. Efforts by some in Congress to raise the figure have been opposed by the oil industry and its allies, who claim that a high liability cap would make it impossible for smaller companies to operate because of higher insurance costs. Congress has also failed to fund restoration for the Gulf ecosystem, or to pass any tougher rules on drilling.

Offshore drilling isn't the only issue that a chronically gridlocked Congress has failed to act on. "The fact that we are only now finishing up appropriations for the fiscal year that we're already halfway through indicates this issue isn't the only one to get caught by the re-election slowdown," says Bob Simon, the staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Maybe, but it's the only one with the power to affect entire ecosystems and hobble the economy of an entire region. It says a lot that not even those kinds of stakes have been enough to motivate Congress to take a few commonsense actions to improve drilling safety. In fact, one new initiative by House Republicans — which would require the Interior Department to approve or deny permit requests within 60 days or less, after which, the permits would be automatically granted — would actually make things worse. Two other bills on the docket would open up not just the long coveted Arctic but also the waters off Southern California to new drilling. "Much of the legislation that I have seen bandied around, especially with the House Republicans, is almost as if the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well incident never happened," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters recently. "I don't have amnesia and neither does the President."

That may be true, but the American public might. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll indicated that 69% of Americans favor increased offshore drilling — up 20 points from last June, when the spill was in progress. Support for offshore drilling hasn't been this high since the summer of 2008 — the last time gasoline was as costly as it is now. Americans say they want safety — 57% in the CNN poll said they doubted the federal government could prevent another big oil spill — but they really seem to want cheap gas. Preventing another Deepwater Horizon costs — and we don't seem to want to pay.