Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Aerial view of a thick layer of weathered oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill floating atop the Gulf of Mexico June 17, 2012
Even after 10 years, scientists are still discovering new types of damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo by NSF Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Ten Years after Deepwater Horizon, Worries Remain

Efforts to clean up the lingering effects of the oil spill are well underway, but secrecy and deregulation have returned to the Gulf, raising the specter of a repeat.

Authored by

by Boyce Upholt

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Ryan Bradley is a fifth-generation fisherman. But in the spring of 2010, he was temporarily something else: a set of BP-funded eyes on the water, keeping tabs on whether the oil seeping from the blown-out Deepwater Horizon well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico had yet encroached into Mississippi State water. Each day Bradley would motor his boat five kilometers beyond the Gulf barrier islands to the edge of US federal waters to watch for the oil.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded 65 kilometers off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven workers died. Over 87 days, nearly 800 million liters of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico—eventually reaching the shoreline across five states. “I believe we’re still paying for that today,” Bradley says. And after 10 years, he worries that another disaster might await.

The spill—the largest accidental marine petroleum spill in history—killed tens of thousands of pelicans. Oysters died by the billions; Bradley says some key reefs never recovered. In the four years after the spill, more than 1,000 dolphins washed ashore. Even now, new ecological effects are being uncovered. In 2017, scientists sent an underwater rover to explore the capped wellhead. They described the site as a “hellscape”: a seafloor barren of anemones and corals but teeming with blackened crabs and shrimp. They suggest that degraded hydrocarbons may be mimicking sex hormones, causing crustaceans to congregate at the toxic site. In a 2016 report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted a full accounting of the damage caused by the oil spill is impossible. Lists of species or sites impacted could not describe the scope. This was an “ecosystem-level injury,” the report said.

In recompense for the damage, BP was ordered through criminal plea agreements and civil settlements to pay nearly US $17-billion. The money was split into three separate pools, each with its own rules and regulations. Some money would be used for projects intended to undo the economic damages, including lost tourism. In Mississippi, for example, some of this fund was used to build a baseball stadium.

The vast majority of the money so far has gone into restoring the ecosystem, amounting to what is likely the largest restoration project in US history. Louisiana, home to nearly two-thirds of the oiled coastline, is the largest recipient. The state is devoting all of its money toward a 50-year plan to save its sinking coast. To date, funds from the disaster have gone to more than 600 projects, from barrier island restoration and marsh reconstruction, to wildlife monitoring and oyster aquaculture.

David Muth, the director of Gulf restoration with the National Wildlife Federation, notes that with money spread across five states and a grab bag of federal agencies, coordination has been difficult. Some projects have been too narrow and local in focus. Overall, though, he gives the restoration effort high marks. With more than $12-billion of the funding still to be distributed, however, restoration is “really just getting started,” he says.

But for all that has been done, Bradley worries about the future. Many watchdog groups concur. “We’re no safer today than we were 10 years ago,” says Dustin Renaud, a spokesperson for Healthy Gulf, an advocacy nonprofit. “In fact, in some ways we might be less safe.”

In the immediate wake of the disaster, there was real progress on regulating offshore drilling. Before the spill, the responsibility for both selling oil leases and enforcing regulations at offshore wells fell to one US federal agency, the Minerals Management Service. In 2011, after restructuring, regulatory duties were given to the new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) which, in 2016, announced its “well-control rule” intended to prevent a repeat of the disaster.

The next year, however, Scott Angelle, a former board member of a pipeline company, became BSEE’s director. Seven years earlier, in the months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Angelle, then Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, spearheaded a campaign that called for the quick resumption of offshore drilling.

“Help is on the way,” Angelle promised industry officials at a meeting a few months after taking the helm at BSEE. Soon thereafter, the agency halted a government study of its inspection program; in 2018, BSEE amended the well-control rule to remove what the government called “unnecessary regulatory burdens.” Emails uncovered by the Wall Street Journal show that Angelle overruled staff concerns and relied on industry recommendations as the agency developed the changes. According to data compiled by the Center for American Progress, BSEE took nearly 40 percent fewer enforcement actions against offshore oil and gas companies in the first three years of the Trump administration as compared to the previous three years. And while offshore production set records in 2019, that data suggests that the amount of oil spilled per barrel produced, and the number of injuries per hour worked, increased in 2018 and 2019 as compared to the previous two years. Last year, according to Healthy Gulf, the coast guard received 1,400 reports of oil and chemical spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, the world faces a new disaster: the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. After the virus hit the United States, the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency stopped enforcing industry self-reporting rules. According to the nonprofit SkyTruth, which tracks the oil industry, the number of spills being reported in the Gulf has declined by more than 40 percent.

But the oil is still out there, as Bradley knows. “You really have to be out on the water at each of these sites every day.” Sheens and leaks are far more common than people realize, he says. So he is still on the water, still watching, wondering where the oil will flow next.