WASHINGTON — Shortly before 10 p.m. Central time on April 20, 2010, an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, unleashing the worst offshore oil spill in United States history and triggering what were supposed to be systemic changes to ensure such a disaster could never happen again.
Now, a decade later, all seven members of the bipartisan national commission set up to find the roots of the disaster and prevent a repeat said many of their recommendations were never taken seriously. As drilling moves farther offshore and deeper underwater, they said, another spill of equally disastrous proportions is possible.
All seven members, in fact, agreed that the United States was only marginally better prepared than it was the night 11 people died in the fiery blowout that released more than 3 million barrels of oil into the waters off the coast of Louisiana.
“No, I don’t think we’re prepared for another spill of that magnitude,” said William K. Reilly, the commission’s Republican co-chairman, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush.
That view is not shared by oil industry leaders or members of the Trump administration, who said government oversight and prevention technology had improved significantly over the past decade, making the likelihood of another major spill remote.
BP, which operated the Deepwater Horizon through a contractor, said the accident “forever changed” the company.
“In 2010, we promised to help the Gulf of Mexico recover, become a safer, better company, and report on our progress,” the company said in a statement. “The lessons we’ve learned and the changes we’ve made — from tougher standards to better oversight — are at the core of becoming a safer company.”
But in lengthy interviews this month, every member of the bipartisan panel, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, accused the Trump administration of putting American waters, coastlines and wildlife in harm’s way by weakening safety and environmental regulations while pushing to expand oil drilling in nearly all U.S. waters.
They also accused Congress of a near-complete failure to adopt their recommendations on drilling safety.
Only the oil industry earned high marks from the commissioners, who credited companies with making substantial improvements in well containment capabilities over the decade.
“We are slightly better prepared than we were 10 years ago but nowhere near where we need to be,” said Bob Graham, a Democrat and former governor and senator from Florida who led the commission with Reilly.
Frances Beinecke, a former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council who served on the commission before it was disbanded in 2011, said, “Ten years later, the only thing that is really advanced is having the industry much more serious about well containment.”
Offshore drilling collapsed after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but a decade later it is back and going strong. Production has surpassed pre-accident levels by a few hundred thousand barrels a day, and oil companies brought seven new projects online in 2019. Nine more were expected this year, though the recent collapse of oil prices, largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic, is forcing companies to rethink their investments.
Last year’s production growth of 126,000 barrels a day brought the Gulf region’s production to a record 2 million barrels a day, out of total U.S. production of 13 million barrels a day. After West Texas, the offshore Gulf is the country’s second-most-important oil region.
The beaches are back as well, but beneath the surface the damage has not been repaired. In one recent study scientists sampled 2,000 fish in the Gulf of Mexico and found all of them contaminated with oil.
At the same time, commissioners said, offshore drilling safety measures put in place after the disaster have been weakened.
In May, the Trump administration announced a rule that removed some of the safety requirements imposed by the Obama administration, which industry had complained were burdensome and costly. The new rule reduced the frequency of safety testing for blowout preventers, which are the last-ditch defense against huge gushers. It also gave industry more leeway in determine the range of pressure in a well that is considered safe for drilling.
Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore drillers, said the new rules allowed industry more flexibility to meet safety requirements with emerging technology. He said none of the changes had made U.S. waters less safe.
Donald Boesch, a commissioner on the Deepwater panel who is also president emeritus of University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, said the Trump administration’s argument that industry had made substantial enough improvements to warrant some rollbacks had merit. But he also said that the Department of Interior had dismissed staff objections to make it easier to finish writing the rule.
“I’m a little nervous about the times we’re in,” Boesch said, adding, “the industry is trying to save and reduce costs, and you have the government backing off on the safety responsibility.”
He and other commissioners said the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which the Obama administration created within the Department of Interior after the Deepwater Horizon accident to focus solely on enforcement, was focusing more on increasing oil production and reducing regulations than on its safety mission.
Congress, they noted, failed to pass legislation that would permanently secure the safety bureau as independent from agencies aimed promoting oil production.
Cherry A. Murray, a commission member and the former dean of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said officials in the Obama administration “did as much as they could” to follow the panel’s recommendations in developing a safety agency. Congress, however, “did zip,” she said.
Sandy Day, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said the perception that the agency is overly focused on production was “simply untrue.” He called revisions to the well-control rule “common sense changes that were based on the best available science, best practices and technological innovations of the past decade.”
One of the commission’s key recommendations was legislation to protect offshore oil and gas whistle-blowers who expose health and safety violations on rigs. Congress has yet to pass a bill.
The commission advised Congress to increase the time the federal government had to review offshore exploration plans, and to give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration a formal role in those deliberations. They also recommended that Congress require the oil and gas industry to pay fees that support environmental science and regulatory review. None of those measures have been implemented.
It advised Congress to strengthen the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the bedrock environmental law that requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of major federal actions. The commission found that the use of “categorical exclusions,” in which officials determine that a project has no significant effect on the environment and does not need a thorough analysis, allowed the BP well in the explosion to avoid scrutiny before the accident.
Congress never acted on that recommendation, and now the Trump administration is moving to weaken NEPA, including allowing more of these types of exclusions. The administration also has moved to loosen the liability of oil companies that kill migratory birds in spills. More than 1 million birds were killed in the four years following the blowout, for which BP paid more $100 million in fines. Once the relaxed rule on bird deaths is finalized, companies would no longer be held responsible for unintended killings.
The one major piece of legislation Congress did pass, the Restore Act, directed 80% of Clean Water Act fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to coastal restoration.
“Thank God they did that,” said Frances A. Ulmer, chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “It has sent a phenomenal amount of money into ecosystem restoration.”
Terry D. Garcia, a former deputy administrator of NOAA and a member of the Arctic research commission, said the United States was actually less safe from a major spill than it was 10 years ago because of the government’s unwillingness to plan for low-probability, high-risk disasters.
“This experience, the one we’re going through right now, I think should give people pause,” he said.
“We very well could have a disaster equal to or greater than the one 10 years ago, and that would be a tragedy because we know what can happen, and yet we didn’t take the steps that were necessary to address that risk,” he said. “It will probably be our epitaph.”