Revisiting the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

One year ago today, a series of human and technical mistakes led to a failure of a piece of oil drilling equipment approximately 5,000 feet below sea level in the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting spill released over 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over the ensuing three months—roughly triple the amount spilled in the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. During that time, several unsuccessful attempts were made to plug the well and the leak was eventually stopped when a relief well reached the main borehole. The spill led to extensive and visible effects that were widely reported and justifiably spurred concern: impacts on wildlife and ecosystems, the dislocation of much of the local fishing industry, and possible exposure to hazardous materials of people involved in the cleanup.

One year later, the true costs and impacts of the spill remain frustratingly unclear. The visible impact of the spill today seems low. Oil is no longer visible on most affected beaches and the teams of cleanup crews have long since disappeared. As bad as the spill was for coastal communities and ecosystems, it was much better than it might have been since the oil was released in deep water and most of it remained offshore. The regional economy seems to be recovering and the local oil industry seems not to have been too affected by the temporary suspension of drilling.

Nevertheless, major concerns linger. Local fish and invertebrate populations underwent varying exposures to oil and to the chemicals deployed during the spill to disperse the oil; recent observations of diseased red snapper and sheepshead have raised questions of possible disease. Biologists are investigating the degree to which a period of unusually high dolphin mortality can be attributed to the spill. Perhaps most importantly, there is concern that layers of oil buried in coastal beach sands will threaten the viability of sea turtle eggs. While these and other potential consequences of the spill deserve continued scrutiny, there are four overarching priorities that remain. Together, these priorities can serve to reduce the likelihood and eventual impacts of any future spills.

Regulatory reform. One of the clear problems in the regulatory regime before the spill was the close relationship between the regulatory body, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), and the regulated industry, not least because MMS had authority over both revenue generation (leasing) and compliance. The Department of Interior appropriately eliminated MMS, removed the revenue collection portion, and replaced the remainder with two separate entities, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to handle leasing and five-year drilling plans; and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to cover the regulatory compliance elements. Both BOEM and BSEE are situated under the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). While these changes are appropriate and in line with the recommendations of an independent commission on the spill, Congress should ensure that the offices remain separate and as apolitical as possible.

Redundancy and its limits. In large and complex systems where problems can spiral quickly out of control, experience has shown redundant systems can reduce risks of catastrophic failure. Redundancy, however, does have limits. Sometimes different systems are not as robust against failure in reality as they seem on paper. Redundancy can be undermined by systems that are not completely independent, or by human errors. Technical issues and regulatory failures can compromise redundant systems as well. As its name suggests, the blowout preventer is designed with multiple systems to prevent events such as the Macondo spill. The complete failure of the blowout preventer happened only after multiple distinct failures, some of which were failures of the team monitoring the system status, some of which were design, construction, and technical flaws, and some of which were maintenance failures.

Emergency response measures. Redundancy can reduce risks but never completely eliminate it; moreover, sometimes redundancy can give a false sense of security. The importance of emergency response is widely acknowledged, but both the BP spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster highlighted an unfortunate lack of capability for responding to what were eminently conceivable problems. In each case, time was lost, and damage done, while experts were called and techniques were tried in desperate bids to alleviate the problem. These bids need not have been so desperate, though having clear and multiple response plans and equipment ready is a clear and attainable step that should be taken within potentially dangerous energy industries.

Long-term scientific research. The BP spill spurred justifiable concern for the ocean and coastal ecosystems affected by both the oil itself and by the chemical dispersants used to reduce the size of the oil slick. Many comparisons were made to Exxon Valdez, but so many of the particulars were different in the Macondo spill—for example, the density of the oil, and the turbulence, oxidation, and temperature characteristics of the environment—that drawing any conclusions about eventual consequences was extremely difficult at the outset. In addition, the cleanup exposed potentially thousands of people to hazardous materials. Long-term monitoring of human health, the ocean ecosystem, and coastal environments is therefore extremely important, not only for enabling a better response to potential problems that arise in the local environment and exposed populations, but also for increasing our ability to focus resources on effective response strategies in the future.