It has been a year since BP helped make the ultimate oil company screw-up: blowing up an offshore oil rig, killing 11 workers, and then unloading 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As tempting as it is to pretend this never happened, we have to survey the wreckage. Because without a clear understanding of what has changed since the disaster, we will be blindsided when a similar accident happens in the future--and if you thought the Deepwater Horizon incident was vaguely apocalyptic, just wait until the next time around.
Changes In the Gulf
The NRDC offers a great summary of the disaster's long-term effects on the Gulf. Some of the more disturbing findings: Oil tar balls are still floating around the Gulf, but nobody knows how many; an undetermined amount of oil has been deposited onto the deep sea floor; 100 marine mammal carcasses were found around the time of the spill, but there could be up to 250 times more dead marine mammals that quickly sunk to the sea floor.
The scariest part is that long term effects on the Gulf are still mostly unknown. While damage to certain ecosystems (i.e. coastal marshes, deep sea corals, sandy beaches) has been observed, no one has made any sort of quantitative assessment about just how bad the situation is.
The Natural Resoures Damage Assessment (NRDA) currently being undertaken by BP and the government has gathered some data already, but it's completely under wraps because the federal agencies involved don't want to compromise their legal case against BP. Eventually, some information from the NRDA will be released to the public, but not in the near future.
Changes in the Offshore Drilling Industry
BP would like us to believe that offshore drilling is quickly becoming safer than crossing the street. In the company's first corporate responsibility report since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP claims that it is working on better safety metrics as well as "Enhanced training and development programmes, particularly around the practical aspects of process safety techniques." Just because they spell words the British way doesn't make them more believable. Remember how BP eventually stopped the oil disaster by pumping mud and cement into the leaking well? That ad hoc "capping stack" technique is now the standard for the oil industry, according to Ed Markey. It may have succeeded once, but we would hope that the oil industry could work on some more technologically advanced techniques to match its space-age offshore drilling practices.
The government is reportedly working on regulations to strengthen the safety of blowout preventers (these should have stopped the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the first place), offshore wells, and cement barriers--but these regulations have not yet been implemented. In the meantime, offshore oil projects continue to be greenlit. Eleven deepwater wells have been approved since the disaster.
Changes in the Oil Spill Cleanup Process
No major government legislation has been passed that would offer better spill response in the case of another disaster. Oil companies claim that they have updated their spill response plans, but The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (that's the replacement for the doomed Minerals Management Service) is taking up to two years to approve each plan. Oil companies are allowed to continue drilling even before their plans are approved--as long as they certify in writing that they can handle a spill, which they're all to happy to do. And while a report from the Coast Guard reveals that the organization does have ideas on how to better deal with oil spills the next time around, the document also admits that "The Coast Guard has not demonstrated consistency in the implementation of lessons learned from major oil spill exercises or incidents."
Not much has changed in the offshore drilling industry, and nobody really knows whether the Gulf Coast ecosystem is in shambles. And yet, offshore drilling projects are still being approved. Could another BP-style oil disaster happen again tomorrow? Definitely. And if it happens next time in the Arctic, where drilling companies have 3.8 million acres under lease, the cleanup process could take much longer--the cold, dark region has little infrastructure, unlike the Gulf Coast.
There are only so many times we can poison the ocean before serious consequences emerge. So if you'll excuse us, we're going to make some additions to our emergency disaster kit.
[Photo of an oil-covered bird that isn't from the Gulf, but is what the birds will look like wherever the next spill is from Flickr user marinephotobank]