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Remember the Gulf Walrus! One Big Lesson from the BP Oil Spill

Climate Justice

Nearly five years ago, BP introduced a flippered mammal Americans never knew we had: the Gulf Walrus! If you don’t know the story, you should, because the tale of the Gulf Walrus tells you everything you need to know about what was wrong with deepwater drilling back in 2010, and worse, still is. Photo by Ansgar Walk

The story goes like this: After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, leaving 11 workers dead and a gusher of oil billowing a mile under the sea, a watchdog group called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility unearthed the regional oil spill response plan BP had submitted to the Department of Interior as part of the process to begin drilling. The document was riddled with omissions, errors, and implausible assumptions. There was no plan for a failed “blowout preventer,” no plan for oil reaching the coast, no plan for oil-soaked turtles and birds.  But, BP’s regional plan did pay lip service to such “Sensitive Biological Resources” as “Sea Lions, Seals, Sea Otters and Walruses.” The media howled. Congressional hearings were held. And in New Orleans, “Save the Gulf Walrus” t-shirts sold like fried oysters. What had happened, it turned out, was that BP had been so eager to gets its rig in the water, that it had cribbed from an earlier plan intended for Arctic drilling. No one had bothered to change the details, and the Department of Interior was happy to give its rubber stamp of approval. And thus an imaginary, large-flippered, sea mammal was born.

Even worse, four other oil companies in the Gulf (ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell) were found to have submitted response plans for Gulf activities that were nearly identical to BP’s plan, Gulf Walrus and all. As Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), now the junior senator from the Bay State, said to a group of CEOs of BP and its rivals at a hearing of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, “The only technology you seem to be relying on is the Xerox machine.”

Five years later, the Gulf Walrus has for me become the half-ton symbol of so much that is wrong with the nation’s approach to deep sea drilling: sloppy homework. Or more specifically, a structural inattention to precaution and safety on the part of the oil-production companies and the agencies that police them. The curse of the Gulf Walrus was for me captured in the report of the National Oil Spill Commission published in 2011, when it identified “systematic failures in risk management” so severe “that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.” The Gulf Walrus reminds us that with deep sea drilling, self-regulation doesn’t work. And government regulation has all the fire of a frozen herring.

Even before that report, CPR’s report on the BP disaster, published in September 2010, had reached a similar conclusion. The authors identified a raft of omissions and blunders: weak government standards designed by industry operatives, the absence of proven technologies to contain ruptures at the well head, a toothless penalty structure that encouraged industry abuse, timelines that gave agency officials little or no opportunity to study submitted applications before approving them. The report urged that agencies consult more with one another, called for stiff penalties, and demanded that companies be required to improve important safety technology. It argued that catastrophic risks were not treated nearly seriously enough and urged the White House to require agencies’ Environmental Impact Statements to address worst-case accidents like blowouts and other massive spills. The report noted that, at the time of the blowout, the Department of Interior employed just 60 inspectors for nearly 4,000 facilities spread over the Gulf’s 600,000 square miles and called for appropriate and reliable funding to allow the Department to do the job that Congress gave it. The report of the National Oil Spill Commission made many of the same recommendations and similarly emphasized the importance of precaution and attention to detail.

But five years after “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” government response has not been nearly dramatic enough. The recommendations above were never implemented (in part because Congress is a policy graveyard.) It’s true that the Department of Interior now requires companies have access to containment domes for leaking well heads; and the Department has promised to tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers. But there is no systematic process to encourage the development of other important technologies, , now and in the future. The Department of Interior says it has initiated the most comprehensive oversight in the history of offshore drilling. But even with an augmented staff, the Department still has only 92 inspectors to monitor thousands of facilities. And while the Department now requires regional response plans to include accidents considered unlikely (while presumably consulting Animal Planet), the White House has ignored the much more significant recommendation—made by CPR and many legal scholars—to require worst-case assessments in Environmental Impact Statements.

In the meantime, the number of deep water rigs has increased over the last five years from 35 to 48. (You can calculate the safety record in your head: one catastrophic accident out of 48 cases.)  And the average depth of all wells started since 2010 is now 40 percent deeper. We’re operating in an environment as challenging as outer space. And we forget the Gulf Walrus at our peril. Goo goo g’joob.

Climate Justice

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