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BP disaster 10 years later: Lessons learned almost too much to bear amid COVID-19

By David Pendered

Five recommendations could prevent another BP type of disaster from damaging the environment. Just five, if they were followed, according to a report released Tuesday by Oceana, the international ocean conservation group that has an office in Savannah and fights efforts to drill for oil off Georgia’s coast.

This iconic image of the blaze at the Deepwater Horizon shows the effort to extinguish the fire on the vessel, which would sink two days after the explosion. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard via Oceana

April 20 marks the 10th anniversary of the explosion aboard BP’s leased Deepwater Horizon exploratory rig. Ten years since 11 workers were killed, 17 were injured, and oil began gushing from a gash nearly a mile deep in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil would spill for 87 days before the hole was sealed, a hole drilled 18,000 feet beneath the sea floor in search of fossil fuel. The entire disaster drew 24/7 news coverage akin to man’s first steps on the moon. An estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil spilled, some of it fouling the coastline of five states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For 56 pages, Oceana’s report presents a detailed look at what went wrong, who got hurt, what was damaged, and what’s been learned since the oil rig blew up and sank, two days later. The title is, Hindsight 2020: Lessons We Cannot Ignore from the BP Disaster.

In this era of COVID-19, the details are almost too much to bear:

  • “Years later, large swaths of the ocean floor around the wellhead resemble a toxic waste dump, devoid of the kinds of marine life that typically lives there.”

Crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Aspen, homeported in San Francisco, recovers fast sweep boom after oil skimming operations in the Gulf of Mexico less than one mile from the shoreline, on June 28, 2010. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard via Oceana

It turns out that the efforts of valiant children and adults to save a few critters proved to be in vain. The practice of squirting Dove dish detergent into water to disperse the oil may not have done any good:

  • “So, this study suggests that those chemicals may have been dumped into the Gulf for no benefit at all.”

One development is so new that Oceana’s report doesn’t mention it, and it weighs on Alabama’s clean-up efforts: The collapse of the global energy sector has caused a reduction in the credit outlook of BP’s parent company, and with it the outlook on $571 million in bonds sold by Alabama. The credit drop was announced this month.

The state plans to repay the debt with proceeds of its share of the BP Settlement, a total of $20.8 billion to be shared by the affected states. The credit outlook of BP was lowered April 1, by analysts with Moody’s Investors Service who cited: “the material impact that dramatically reduced oil and gas prices will have on the company’s financial profile.” A week later, April 8, Moody’s reduced the outlook on Alabama’s BP-backed debt to negative from stable.

Floating booms were spread atop the water to trap oil spilled by the BP disaster before it reached the shoreline at St. Andrews State Park, at Panama City Beach. Credit: David Pendered

Oceana’s report recommends five measures to prevent a recurrence of the BP disaster. Here they are, verbatim:

1) President Trump should halt all efforts to expand offshore drilling to new areas.

  • Expanding offshore drilling to new areas is expanding risk to human health, ecosystems and economies. Tourism, fishing and recreation industries currently contribute millions of jobs and billions in revenue to coastal states. Threatening these with unsafe offshore drilling and its risks is shortsighted and dangerous.

2) President Trump should direct BSEE to seek transformative changes to the industry’s safety culture and reverse efforts to weaken safety regulations.

  • Poor safety culture in the oil industry prior to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster fed the conditions that led to it. Ten years later, little has changed and BSEE gutted the very precautions put in place after the BP disaster. BSEE [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, within the Department of the Interior] should restore safety measures it removed from the Production Safety Systems Rule and Well Control Rule. Additionally, the industry needs drastic safety reforms in the drilling operations currently underway that are still resulting in hundreds of oil spills every year.

Support vessels stand ready to aid in the clean up effort in St. Andrews Bay, at Panama City. Credit: David Pendered

3) President Trump should direct the BOEM to deny all pending geological and geophysical seismic permits for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Seismic airgun blasting is dangerous and harmful to marine wildlife. Seismic airgun blasting can disrupt, injure or even kill marine animals from the smallest zooplankton to the largest whales. BOEM [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, within the Department of the Interior] should not issue permits to companies that want to blast the Atlantic Ocean with noise, looking for oil reserves that should never be tapped in the first place.

4) Congress should enact a moratorium on expanded offshore drilling.

  • For nearly three decades, Congress restricted spending on outer continental shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing and drilling activities through moratoria renewed annually in appropriations bills. These restrictions were enacted via the annual appropriations in the Interior-Environment Appropriations bill. Congress should reinstate offshore drilling moratoria once again in the FY 2021 bill [which begins Oct. 1], and continue to do so, as long as permanent protections are not in place.

5) Congress should incentivize investments in clean, renewable energy.

  • We must rapidly end our reliance on fossil fuels and begin the transition to clean, renewable energy like offshore wind and solar power to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Congress should enact incentives for investments in developing clean energy to help reduce our energy-related emissions that fuel climate change.


A contracted fishing vessel, Mark and Jace, pulls an oil boom during a controlled oil fire in the Gulf of Mexico in a joint effort by the U.S. Coast Guard, BP PLC, and federal agencies to aid in preventing the spread of oil following the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard via Oceana



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Peggy Dobbins April 27, 2020 12:50 pm

    Thanks, David Pendered for a complicated and difficult lesson environmentalists missed. Avoid relying on the welfare of the party that caused the damage to correct the damage. This is worse even than relying on their ability or promise to prevent damage and/or correct any they do. It is more than relevant to the human deaths and economic suffering brought on by the world wide spread of a virus more lethal than any like it previously investigated.Report

  2. peggy dobbins April 27, 2020 12:55 pm

    What I wouldn’t have known to grasp, nor how to: “The state plans to repay the debt [on the state bond sold to pay clean up labor] with proceeds of its share of the BP Settlement, a total of $20.8 billion to be shared by the affected states. The credit outlook of BP was lowered April 1, by analysts with Moody’s Investors Service who cited: “the material impact that dramatically reduced oil and gas prices will have on the company’s financial profile.” A week later, April 8, Moody’s reduced the outlook on Alabama’s BP-backed debt to negative from stable.”Report


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