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The BP Oil Disaster: A One-Year Assessment and Recommendations for Restoration and Reform

Bob Deans

Posted April 14, 2011 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, U.S. Law and Policy

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April 20 marks a year since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded over a BP well, killing 11 workers and opening a gusher that spewed some 170 million gallons of toxic crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

One year later, the worst oil spill in U.S. history has left a sorry legacy of enduring damage, a people wronged and a region scarred.

The environmental harm has been widespread. The people of the region, who have lost billions of dollars to the spill, have not been made whole - not even close. And regional restoration has yet to begin in earnest.

Rather than respond to the disappointment, Congress has added to it, failing to act on a single lesson learned from the long chain of documented misjudgments, operational mistakes, equipment failings and oversight shortcomings that led to the blowout of the BP well.

Unbowed by a calamity of its own making, the industry and its Washington allies are resisting reforms that would make drilling safer.

And the Obama Administration, after reorganizing the agency responsible for overseeing offshore drilling in the Gulf, has largely settled for half measures instead of the robust overhaul of safeguards it promised last year when the Gulf ran black.

All in all, our response to this national catastrophe has fallen short of what's required. One year later, we must take stock, regroup and strike a new course.

 

Enduring Damage

The BP blowout damaged some of the richest, most diverse fisheries anywhere in the world, and the harm continues.

"The accident should never have happened. We are shocked and saddened that it did," BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg wrote to shareholders in the annual report the company published in early March. "The spill that resulted caused widespread pollution."

In the 87 days it took for BP to plug the runaway well, some 170 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf – about fifteen times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spilled in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. Here's a recap of what's known:

Oil:

  • Just 8 percent of the oil was burned or skimmed off the Gulf's surface.

  • Another 25 percent evaporated, mixing toxic fumes into the air.
  • A good portion got eaten by natural bacteria
  • Oil washed up across some 1,053 miles of shoreline, including beaches, salt marshes, mud flats and mangroves.
  • An oily mix – up to two inches thick – carpets the ocean floor up to 80 miles from the spill site, turning parts of the rich Gulf bottom into what one marine scientist called "a graveyard,"
  • Oil plumes the size of major cities – including one more than 22 miles long – have been documented in waters more than 3,000 feet deep and up to 50 miles from the blowout site.
  • Of that, 83 miles of shoreline remained heavily or moderately oiled as of the end of January, while tar balls and weathered oil continued to wash ashore in places.

Wildlife:

  • Roughly 7,000 birds, sea turtles, dolphins and whales had been found dead, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports.

  • More than 150 bottlenose dolphins – nearly half of them newborn or stillborn calves – have washed up dead so far this year from the Florida panhandle to Louisiana shores in recent weeks.
  • More than 180 dead sea turtles – most of them endangered Kemp Ridleys – have been found along the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
  • The cause of death may remain unknown for these dolphins & turtles, but BP oil was found in some of the dolphin carcasses.
  • The animals found dead, moreover, represent just the tip of the iceberg, scientists say, of wildlife that was killed then disappeared, sinking to the bottom or being eaten. For every dolphin that washes ashore, for example, scientists estimate perhaps 50 others die and are never found.
  • Toxins in the oil can take a lethal toll on aquatic life of all kinds, from blue crabs and shrimp to tuna and squid. Exposure to these toxins can also cause genetic damage, liver disease, cancer and harm to reproductive and immune systems, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has lead oversight authority for efforts to assess the environmental damage from the blowout.
  • The spill site itself – still off limits to fishing - is home to swordfish, marlin, mako sharks, blue fin tuna, long bill spearfish and others.
  • There are 21 species of protected marine mammals in the Gulf, including the blue whale and five other kinds of whales, all of which are listed as endangered, as well as loggerheads and three other types of protected sea turtles.
  • Oceanographers have found dead coral and other species in surveys along parts of the ocean floor.
  • Wetlands – the nursery of the Gulf – have been damaged by oil that killed frontline marsh grasses that help to hold the marsh in place. Oil has also coated mangrove roots or settled into mudflats, sandy beaches and tidal sediments, where oil will remain trapped for decades, continuing to threaten habitat and wildlife.

Other types of environmental harm will take years to unfold. The herring population collapsed in Prince William Sound, for example, three years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

It will likely be October before we get our first good look at the full scope of environmental damage this disaster has inflicted on the Gulf. That's when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects to release preliminary findings from its Natural Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA, the scientific-based foundational document courts will rely on to assess environmental harm.

The extensive work being done to prepare the NRDA has so far been kept from the public. It is essential that the NRDA provide a full and faithful record of the damage done to natural resources. At the same time, the public interest in this matter is so high that we have called on NOAA to issue a preliminary summary of its key findings so far.

That's what happened after the Exxon Valdez oil spill: a summary NRDA, 258 pages long, was released five months after that disaster. Even a much shorter summary of what's been learned about the BP disaster's impact, one year later, would greatly widen public understanding of this important issue, and we, again, urge NOAA to provide such a report.

 

A People Wronged

Any reckoning of this disaster's human toll must begin with the loss of 11 workers on the night the Deepwater Horizon caught fire, adding to the grim toll of 30 other offshore oil workers killed in the Gulf in just the previous four years, along with 1,550 who were injured during the previous decade in this difficult and dangerous business. The lives of their families will never be the same.

For many other Gulf residents, the BP disaster has threatened their livelihood – and their way of life.

Lost Business:

  • Thousands of fishermen, oyster gatherers, shrimpers and crabbers were thrown out of work for months, as, in response to the oil spill, federal authorities closed up to 37 percent of U.S. Gulf waters – nearly 90,000 square miles of water - to fishing.

  • Just in Louisiana, which supplied roughly 30 percent of our nation's seafood before the blowout, fishermen will lose up to $173 million during this year and the next two, as a result of the oil spill, according to an analysis by Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic alliance.
  • In addition, hotels, restaurants, charter boat operators and other tourism-dependent businesses stand to lose up to $23 billion over three years, as visitors cancel or otherwise forgo travel to the oil-impacted region, according to an analysis by Oxford Economics, a global forecasting and research firm.

It would be hard to put a dollar value on the pain and loss this disaster has imposed on families that have relied for generations on clean Gulf waters and healthy fisheries for the livelihoods and their way of life. At least, though, the parties responsible for this devastating blowout might have been expected to make the people of the region whole on documented economic harm accounted for in dollars and cents. One year later, though, that has been a promise largely unfulfilled.

BP Claims:

  • Weeks after the blowout, BP set up the Gulf Coast Claims Facility to manage applications for financial relief from the spill. To run the facility, BP hired Kenneth Feinberg, who administered claims for families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. BP pays Feinberg's Washington law firm $1.25 million a month to manage the claims process.

  • As of April 7, BP had paid businesses and individuals $3.7 billion to cover damages and losses, according to company reports.
  • About 71 percent of the 97,968 businesses that had filed for relief from BP had received checks. Of those, 78 percent received $25,000 or less, according to Gulf Coast Claims Facility statistics.
  • Of the 404,527 individuals who have sought compensation for losses, 54 percent have been paid. Of those receiving checks, 84 percent have received $10,000 or less and 65 percent have gotten $5,000 or less. In other words, for individuals who have filed a claim, chances of walking away empty handed are about 50-50; odds of getting anything more than $5,000 are less than one in four.
  • We'll leave it for others to judge whether $5,000 is just compensation for a waterman who can't feed his family. In the region, though, more than 300 federal lawsuits have been filed against the claims facility. Gulf states politicians have assailed the program as sluggish and miserly. And a federal judge in New Orleans has ordered Feinberg to stop referring to his role as independent and neutral, writing that the administrator is "acting for and on behalf of BP."
  • Ryan Lambert told the New Orleans Times-Picayune recently that he plans to sue for losses to his charter fishing company. Lambert, vice president of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, told the paper he paid his accountant $7,000 to document losses – which have reached $1.1 million.
  • BP has covered just $211,000 of that, said Lambert, who has lost patience with a BP public relations campaign built around the company's promise to "make this right." Said Lambert, "All the millions they spent on those TV and newspaper ads about making things right is a lie."

 

A Region Scarred

Imagine walking into a town where the oil spill undercut the ability of 44 percent of all breadwinners to support their families; where three-fourths of those who came in direct contact with the oil reported headaches, sinus irritation and other health problems afterward; where nearly half of all residents lack health care insurance.

That's part of the picture that emerged from a health and economic survey released in March by the non-profit Louisiana Bucket Brigade in partnership with researchers from Tulane University, which queried 954 people, in face-to-face interviews conducted door to door or in grocery stores or other high-traffic areas, across 13 Louisiana coastal communities.

The findings mirrored anecdotal comments that have overwhelmed community meetings, restoration hearings and other public forums for months across the Gulf region.

And, much as with the environmental and economic impacts, the health affects of the oil disaster – both long-term and short – have often left Gulf coast residents with more questions than answers.

Is it safe to feed our children local seafood? Is it okay to swim off the beach? What really happened to all that oil? Why are stillborn dolphins rolling in on the tide? When can we go back to work?

Whether we look to habitat and wildlife, employment and pay or basic health and family welfare, the BP oil blowout has left the people of the Gulf living in a region scarred. One year later, this is a place where each day can be a struggle just to hang on and the future is clouded by uncertainty and doubt.

Michel Claudet, the president of Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish, might have put it best when he told several members of President Obama's independent oil spill commission in January that "Our lives have not been the same since April 20th."

 

The Way Forward

This country has faced disaster best when we have found a way to honor its victims, learn the lessons it teaches and chart a better course forward. That is what we must do now.

We best honor the victims of this disaster, those who lost their lives and those struggling to maintain their livelihood, by restoring the Gulf and making its people whole.

The courts will rule on how well the BP claims process is compensating Gulf residents for loss and harm. But when half the people seeking help walk away empty handed, and most of the rest top out with less than they'd need to buy a second-hand truck, it's hard to see how things have been put right.

Last June, President Obama impaneled the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling to investigate the causes of the blowout and to make recommendations on what might be done to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.

In its final report, issued in January, the Commission found that the risks of deepwater drilling have far outstripped the technology and safeguards we rely upon to keep our workers, our waters and our wildlife safe. Moreover, the ability of the industry and the government to respond to a catastrophic spill has not kept pace with developments offshore, and the science we rely on to make decisions about oil activities is inadequate in light of the challenges and risks of deepwater drilling.

"In the years before the Macondo blowout, neither industry nor government adequately addressed these risks," the Commissioners wrote. "Investments in safety, containment and response equipment and practices failed to keep pace with the rapid move into deepwater drilling . . . the business culture succumbed to a false sense of security. The Deepwater Horizon disaster exhibits the costs of a culture of complacency."

The commission recommended specific steps, with a role for industry, the Congress and the administration.

Here are some steps our government and corporate leaders can take to begin to repair the damage:

Industry Safety:

Industry must put safety first. That starts, the commissioners said, by creating a separate institute, supported by the oil and gas industry, with a mandate to instill a safety culture within the industry.

The model for this is the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, or INPO, created by the nuclear power industry after the 1979 partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. INPO sets high standards for nuclear plant safety, regularly audits facilities and operations, then shares its findings with the companies that insure these plants. That helps hold owners and operators accountable for safe operations, equipment and procedures. The offshore oil industry should follow that lead.

And yet, to date, the industry's response has been that this function can be handled by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade association. One of the most powerful special interest groups in Washington, the API, first and foremost, lobbies our elected leaders on behalf of the shareholders of oil companies. The safety institute needs to have one mission: safety. That is absolutely vital.

In the weeks following the BP blowout, the industry created the non-profit Marine Well Containment Company. Its purpose is to make available to its members a suite of ships and sophisticated containment equipment capable of quickly capping a deep water blowout. And major Gulf players are signing on: BP joined the consortium in February.

The Marine Well Containment Company beats a golf ball and tire-filled junk shot. The containment equipment, though, is untested at depth and could take weeks to deploy in an emergency. Put simply, we still don't know if it quickly cap a blow out in deep water. As we learned so tragically last year, hope is not a strategy. This equipment needs to be tested and proven to work.

Congress:

Drawing on the mistakes, misjudgments and operational errors that contributed to the BP blowout, the commission recommended that Congress strengthen the safeguards we all rely on to keep our workers, waters and wildlife safe. Despite more than 50 hearings have been held on the disaster, Congress has yet to act.

In the House, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill in January that would enshrine key commission recommendations. The bill contains additional provisions that were part of oil spill legislation that passed the full House last summer before dying of Senate inaction. The House has yet to vote, though, on Markey's new bill. We urge the House to act.

In the Senate, Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, has said he is working on companion legislation. We urge the full Senate to act.

Here are two key issues they need to tackle:

Restoration: Gulf restoration will require a long-term commitment to a comprehensive plan that addresses the immediate harm done by the oil and the systemic problems, including farm and urban runoff far upstream, contributing to the loss of wetlands and the degradation of the Gulf.

After hosting 34 town hall meetings in the five Gulf Coast states, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus released a 126-page Gulf restoration plan last September. The report, "America's Gulf Coast: A Long Term Recovery Plan after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill," makes the case for repairing the damage done by the BP oil disaster and the longer-term degradation of the Gulf and the rich delta wetlands that nourish it.

It recommends that "a significant amount" of any fines collected from the oil disaster be spent on the restoration of the region's environment, its economy and the physical and mental health of its people. We more than agree.

Under the provisions of the Clean Water Act, BP and its partners could be fined up to $1,100 per barrel of oil discharged. At 4.9 million barrels, that comes to $5.4 billion. The fine, however, could be nearly four times that much, or up to $4,300 per barrel, should the courts find that the spill was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Under current law, those fines would go into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a pool of money set aside to address future oil spills. Whatever benefits this approach might provide, they are trumped by the urgent need to treat the region that has suffered harm. That's why we urge Congress to make at least 80 percent of the money from these fines available for Gulf restoration.

Liability: Similarly, we are calling on Congress to strengthen the Oil Pollution Act by raising the limit on a company's liability for a catastrophic spill, so that well operators, not victims or taxpayers, are responsible for spill damages.

Under current law, companies that pollute our waters or lands with oil spills are required to cover only $75 million in damages. That figure is absurd. The liability limit should be raised significantly.

BP has advised shareholders that the spill could cost the company up to $41 billion. That includes estimates for fines and other expenses not covered in the liability cap. But it paints a more realistic picture of the magnitude of the liability incurred by a company responsible for a deepwater blowout.

Government Oversight:

From the earliest days of the BP blowout, President Obama has spoken clearly and forcefully on the need to strengthen safeguards and to make sure the people we count on to enforce those safeguards have the tools they need to do the job. That means adequate funding, training, equipment and support.

The president also ordered a reorganization of the old Minerals Management Service, to separate its leasing and royalty collection duties from the job of keeping offshore oil development as safe as possible. The new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement – an agency within the Department of Interior – goes a long way toward accomplishing that. And the agency has written new regulations, some of which mirror the oil spill commission's recommendations, that strengthen essential protections.

The commission, though, suggests we go further, and we are urging the president to implement those recommendations in full.

To improve safety and environmental protections, the Department of the Interior should create an independent offshore safety authority to oversee offshore energy operations.

The department should also work with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to strengthen the National Environmental Policy Act to require environmental impact statements for activities on sites with complex geology or those in ultra-deepwater, the Arctic and other frontier areas.

And the department should enhance the role of science in decisions about offshore energy activities by creating a distinct environmental science division and increasing interagency consultations with the nation's lead civilian ocean agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And finally...Breaking Our Addiction:

We need to strengthen the safeguards to better protect our workers and waters, we need to require those who profit from oil in deep water to operate there safely - or not at all, and we also need to make sure the people who enforce protections have the tools they need to do the job.  But we must do one thing more. We must reduce our reliance on oil.

We use, in this country, every single day, 800 million gallons of oil, enough to fill the Empire State Building three times. With less than 2 percent of the world's proved oil reserves, we use 26 percent of the world's daily output of oil.

Drill, baby, drill? We've done that – for a century and a half. Right now, today, nearly 60 percent of the world's producing oil wells are in the United States. We have more wells in our country, alone, than every other country in the world combined. We cannot drill our way out of our dependence on oil. That's not a political assertion; it's simple arithmetic.

President Obama has called on the country to cut oil imports by one-third over the coming decade, by investing in efficiency, renewable energy and sustainable communities that give us more choices in how we live our lives. This goal is achievable, even conservative. The plan needs and deserves our support.

One year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we have it within us to change, to restore the Gulf and make its people whole; to make deepwater drilling safer and more environmentally sound for now, while we work to reduce the need to put workers at risk drilling in deeper and more dangerous waters.

That is the way to honor the men who lost their lives a year ago. That is how to put the lessons of this disaster to use. That is how to move the country forward in a way that keeps faith with Americans everywhere who are counting on us to make sure nothing like this ever happens again – in the Gulf of Mexico, or anywhere else.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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