Apr 20, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The Gulf of Mexico still bears wounds from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster 10 years later

A gull covered in paint.

Gull coated in heavy oil from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Monday marks a decade since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, which claimed 11 lives, spilled roughly 3 million barrels of oil over months, and created ecological damage that lingers today.

Why it matters: It was the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, and prompted a major overhaul of offshore drilling oversight.

The big picture: The region and its wildlife still bear environmental wounds despite substantial recovery in the last decade, researchers say.

  • A study published last week in the journal Scientific Reports laid out the results of extensive fish sampling and found widespread evidence of oil exposure.
  • An in-depth Associated Press piece notes that some scientists see "remarkable recovery," but also reports: "Scientists who spent the decade studying the Deepwater Horizon spill still worry about its effects on dolphins, whales, sea turtles, small fish vital to the food chain, and ancient corals in the cold, dark depths."
  • A National Geographic story based on interviews with multiple researchers finds that species including deep-sea coral, common loons and spotted sea trout are "struggling" and have lower populations.
  • But others, including the Louisiana brown pelican, have shown "robust" recovery, they report. "Scientists say it’s still too early to tell definitively what the impact has been for longer-lived species such as dolphins, whales, and sea turtles," the story notes.

The state of play: Michael Bromwich, the blunt former Justice Department official who reshaped drilling regulation in the aftermath of BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster, is worried that safety isn't getting the attention it deserves 10 years after the crisis — and he's not alone.

What they're saying: Bromwich criticized the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement — one of the agencies he helped create — for changes to blowout preventer and well-control regulations that he and other critics called a big rollback.

  • In an interview with Axios, he also criticized the posture of current BSEE director Scott Angelle for saying that the agency is a "partner" to the oil-and-gas industry.
  • “These are not statements that ought to be coming from the industry’s chief regulator,” Bromwich said.

The other side: Angelle has defended the agency's oversight, and industry and Interior officials say the rule changes made the regulations smarter without compromising safety.

  • And, Debra Phillips of the trade association American Petroleum Institute tells the Washington Post that Trump administration changes to offshore oversight have "been mischaracterized as rollbacks."

Catch up fast: Bromwich joined the Interior Department in June of 2010, when oil was still gushing out of BP's ruptured well.

  • He oversaw reforms that broke leasing, safety and revenue collections into separate units, imposed safety mandates and set new regulations in motion.

Threat level: Bromwich said the federal government now has a stronger hand to ensure safety than it did before the disaster, even though he says the current administration is not focused enough on safety.

  • “Even as weakened, the well control rule provides additional basis for confidence that companies are required to take steps that lower the risk” of major new accidents, he said.
  • More broadly, he said “the agency has the tools now to be able to lower the risk of future disasters like Deepwater Horizon,” but also notes: “The real question is to what extent, how aggressively, are they being enforced.”
  • Bromwich and others also note the industry has taken steps since the spill on safety and response, such as the 2010 creation of Marine Well Containment Company, a nonprofit industry consortium designed to bolster response and control capacity for accidents at deepwater wells.

But, but, but: He's concerned that the collapse in oil prices will lead companies to pare resources for training and safety. That "could have unfortunate consequences down the road," he said.

  • His concerns are echoed more broadly by members of the bipartisan commission that probed the accident and spoke to the New York Times.
  • “We are slightly better prepared than we were ten years ago but nowhere near where we need to be,” Bob Graham, former Florida governor and senator who co-chaired the panel, told NYT.
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