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5 Years In: 10 Things We’ve Learned About Deepwater Horizon
By Merrill Cook,
Business Pundit, 30 April 2015.

Close to five years and one week ago the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to a total of 87 days of oil slick expansion. At the time, 11 offshore workers were killed, 17 injured, and an oil slick covering 16,000 square miles began to form.

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Former BP CEO Tony Hayward (right) (Image Source)

As the clean-up effort commenced it became clear that the spill was the worst anthropogenic disaster in American history. While BP is slated to pay a record US$4 billion criminal penalty and has already paid close to US$30 billion in clean-up costs, the fallout is far from settled. Check out 10 things we’ve learned about Deepwater Horizon over the last five years.

10. BP May Be Paying for Medicine For Years

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BP has already been served the largest criminal fine in history - $4 billion - for the 11 deaths ruled as manslaughter in connection with the Deepwater Horizon spill. They’ve also been found guilty of negligence for every other crew member who survived. For those living near the gulf who can prove their health issues are due to oil or toxic dispersal agents, BP had to food that bill too. While channels were opened in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy to pay for medical expenses related to the clean-up - largely rashes, breathing problems, and vision issues - a ruling also allowed for medical damages of a longer term nature to be brought back to court. More recently - five years after the event - a New Orleans Judge has ruled that future claimants arguing that cancer or chronic ailments are due to the spill and clean-up may be decided in a jury of their peers. This is an unusual decision for this type of case, but makes sense in a punitive lens. Jury trials take longer, which could potentially mean years of additional litigation time for BP in cases they don’t want to settle. Juries are also known to more readily side with individuals when their suit is against a corporation on medical matters, an additional burden for the oil giant.

9. BP Will Pay US$1,100-US$4,300 Per Barrel Spilled

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On top of the US$30 billion BP has already set aside for clean-up efforts and the US$4 billion in criminal penalties due to manslaughter and negligence, BP could face a record monetary penalty made on a per barrel basis under the Clean Water Act. With a Federal Court set to decide on the matter this summer, BP is currently slated to owe somewhere between US$1,100 and US$4,300 per barrel. And that’s for 3.19 million barrels of oil. This brings the total penalty under the Clean Water Act to somewhere between US$3.5 and US$13.7 billion dollars. Due to the current gross negligence charges, it is estimated BP could be charged with the maximum fine. BP argues that their initial payment of $30 billion in clean-up costs - offered even before court intervention - should act as mitigating circumstances in the decision on final penalties. Many Gulf residents and organizations believe that more money will be needed. Though clean-up has long been underway, sopping up the existing oil is not in any way synonymous with the restoration of the Gulf.

8. There Needed to be More Rapid Research On the Spill

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Obtaining funding for research can be a long and laborious process. But dealing with the repercussions of an oil spill that wasn’t researched soon enough after it happened can be even more laborious. According to panellists in the 2014 “Gulf of Mexico & Ecosystem Science Conference,” there were not enough funds for independent research during the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon incident. While this makes sense in light of the large amount of funds being diverted to clean-up efforts, the benefits of having research from the earliest stages of the disaster could have paid off big time in both measuring the effects of the spill and preventing future incidents. Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - and marine ecologist at the time of the spill - noted that perhaps mechanisms designed in advance to quickly fund research, increase the speed of the peer review process during disasters, and increase communications between government and academic scientists could help greatly in a future incident. Other speakers put forward the idea that scientists should be built into the national response team in such situations, as well as emphasized the importance of both baseline and rapid access to new data can be in such situations.

7. Louisiana is Sinking Faster Because of the Oil Spill

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Louisiana loses about one football field’s worth of land an hour, or about 16 square miles of land a year. And that’s with tons of coastal work and regulation that’s slowed the rate from 50 square miles a year 30 years ago. In total, close to 2,000 square miles of land in Louisiana has sunk beneath the waves since the 1930’s. While the problem is partially due to the lack of sediment making it to the coast due to levees and canals, as well as the natural subsidence of a delta, anthropogenic reasons have greatly exacerbated the issue. With over 50,000 oil and gas wells in the coastal zone, over 10,000 miles of canals have been cut for easy access. While it would take longer to get to oil extraction sites without them, the already fragile environment just can’t hold up to being sliced into that many pieces. In some regions canal dredging for oil and gas has been linked to the loss of 36-60% of the land loss.

Now for the news that’s even worse. As oil spread along the coast, salt marsh plants located from 15-30 feet from the shoreline were rapidly killed off. With the resultant instability in the soil, shoreline loss was almost immediately elevated to a rate of 10 feet loss per year. This rate of close to double the normal erosion rate lasted for a total of 18 months causing miles and miles of shoreline loss directly attributable to the spill.

6. The Spill was the Worst Anthropogenic Disaster in US History

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Don’t believe us? Let’s just start with the oil. Over 87 days 3.19 million barrels worth of oil were spilled. At 42 gallons per barrel that places the total spill at over 133 million gallons of oil. For comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill involved around 20 million gallons of oil, slightly over one-sixth of Deepwater Horizon. The Gulf War oil spill was of a comparable size, and covered 101 miles of land with oil some five inches thick in places. The main difference between the two being that the location of the Gulf War spill was largely unpopulated and desolate, while the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most diverse animal habitats in the world.

Next the human element. Of those publicly known, 11 crew members died - 3 in particularly horrific ways - while many of the escaping crew were gravely injured. During the clean-up effort 1.84 million gallons of Corexit, a dispersal agent were spread through the gulf. While the EPA would not present its files on how the agent interacts with the environment due to “potential sharing of business secrets,” it was later disclosed that Corexit is toxic. While Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator at the time insisted that BP switch to a less toxic alternative some two days later, BP responded that it hadn’t found any suitable alternatives. Corexit is known to cause liver and kidney damage. And it is still washing up in clumps on the Gulf Coast today. For those directly involved in the clean-up effort, the risk is even higher, with the mixture of crude oil and Corexit found to be more toxic than either on their own. If that isn’t enough, check out the status on animals below.

5. More than One Million Animals Have Been Killed

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While apologists like to note that bacteria broke down oil rapidly after the spill (it did), this seems to be quite a convenient diversion from the fact that millions of gallons of oil made it to the coast. Oil which met with Corexit dispersed into smaller droplets and sank into the ocean. With a great deal of Corexit placed around the actual leak in the well, an untold amount of oil never rose to the surface but was nonetheless circulating in the water.

It’s estimated that 800,000 birds - including 12% of the pelican population - were killed by chemicals related to the spill. Since 2010, 1,000 bottle-nosed dolphins have been found dead on the shore, with those swimming in deeper waters routinely found underweight, anaemic, and showing signs of liver and lung disease. National Geographic notes that this means there’s a much larger problem going on. When top predators like the dolphins are ill in such numbers, it means that things are probably more dire farther down the food chain. Of the five species of sea turtles that live in the gulf, all are listed as threatened or endangered. Even with their populations so low, hundreds have been found on the coast. Looking farther down the food chain, large amounts of mutation has occurred. Through 2013 it was estimated that 50% of shrimp caught in Barataria Bay (a popular shrimping destination) were not only born missing eyes, but eye sockets. Crabs are being born in record numbers missing claws, shells, eyes, and with many growing only to a fifth their normal size.

4. More than 1,500 New Drilling Permits Have Been Granted In the Gulf

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Though there was a six month moratorium on new deep water drilling in the Gulf and approval for the first new rig after Deepwater Horizon was slow, new rigs have been off to the races ever since. On March 31st, 6 months after the well was closed completely, Shell became the first company to obtain a new well permit after Deepwater Horizon. Throughout the remainder of 2011, new well permits were granted at the fastest pace of the last five years for a total of 109 new wells. This accelerated to 179 in 2012, with both 2013 and 2014 hovering over 120. For every type of drilling - including reroutes, additions to existing wells, and so on - over 1,500 new drilling permits have been granted since the disaster at Deepwater Horizon.

3. No One Knows the Effects of Corexit Under Pressure

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We’ve previously mentioned a few of the larger problems with using Corexit, but the fact of the matter is that the problem of using Corexit could just be getting worse. In cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill, unprecedented levels of Corexit were used, and we learned a few things. Prolonged human exposure to Corexit can cause nervous system problems, or do damage to blood, kidneys, or livers. While Corexit helps to disperse oil so as to keep it from showing up in oil-soaked beach scenes, many scientists discredit it for breaking oil into small droplets that drop below the surface and are harder to collect. On top of large amounts of oil dropping below the surface to be pushed around the gulf, Corexit was also pumped to the source of the well head nearly a mile underwater. The effects of such high levels of cold and pressure are unknown on Corexit. All in all, while Corexit saved the nation from the site of oil-soaked beaches, we aren’t sure if it actually prevented more harm in the end. Only time will tell if it was a smart choice or simply a face saver on the PR front.

2. With Increased Drilling in the Arctic Comes Even MORE Risk

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As of 2009, 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas, and 20% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas liquids are in the Arctic. While increased drilling in the arctic may makes economic sense, a number of complicating circumstances - exacerbated by the lack of high level technical expertise on the regulatory side - point to unlearned lessons from the Deepwater Horizon Spill. Extreme cold and lack of infrastructure would make containing any situation difficult. Meanwhile the same changes in weather patterns that are opening up the possibility of drilling are also increasing the fragile and unpredictable nature of the environment. Finally, there’s the fact that any spill of noteworthy size would inevitably threaten other regions due to the proximity of Europe, Asia, and North America in the far north, as well as strong weather patterns.

1. The Regulatory Agency Responsible Was Highly Profitable

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One final development spurred by the Deepwater Horizon spill was the dissolution of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an agency within the Department of the Interior charged with managing the nation’s natural gas, oil, and other natural resources on the outer continental shelf. As of 2010, the MMS had a profit margin of 98% - the second highest profit rate in the Federal Government behind the IRS. Before the spill, MMS-released materials stated an aim of the agency was to “fund advanced scientific studies and enforces the highest safety and environmental standards.” Though the same materials listed the role of the MMS as being the “Nation’s leader in offshore energy development and the collection of royalties on behalf of the American Public,” it was found that this constituted a conflict of interest. While the MMS was supposed to enforce high safety and environmental standards, they only received royalties from leasing deep sea well sites to oil and gas companies. Needless to say, a lax regulatory climate was overlooked when the MMS became the second largest source of income to the U.S. Treasury in 2008. As to acknowledge these systemic problems, the Secretary of the Interior separated the MMS into three separate agencies - the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue - and fully dissolved the agency in 2010.

Top image: A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010. Credit: kris krüg/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Business Pundit. Edited. Top image added.]

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