Five years after The Big Spill: Drilling, questions continue in the Gulf

A day after BP’s Macondo well exploded in April 2010, smoke billowed from the Deepwater Horizon rig.
A day after BP’s Macondo well exploded in April 2010, smoke billowed from the Deepwater Horizon rig. AP

Deep in the Gulf of Mexico, far from public sight but still under close scrutiny by scientists, federal agencies and the energy industry, a massive smear of oil sits at the bottom of the ocean like a dirty bath tub ring.

The ring is the remnant of the worst offshore drilling catastrophe in U.S. history — the April 20, 2010, explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and spilled at least three million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during an 87-day struggle to cap a deep-sea gusher.

In the five years since, federal and industry probes have detailed a string of shortcuts, errors and lax oversight that combined to trigger the blowout. Regulators once cozy with the industry were reorganized. Drillers were forced to admit that safety measures had not kept pace with the heightened risks of deep ocean exploration.

With the Gulf serving as a vast Petri dish, scientists have collected an unprecedented amount of data that led to new discoveries about how oil and water mix and how petrochemicals damage sea life — though they stress it will take more than a half decade to understand long-term effects on the complex system.

For all the billions spent — BP calculates the total at more than $29 billion so far — two thing are clear: The oil and gas industry will keep drilling and, despite tougher safety standards and better response plans, there is no guarantee it won’t happen again.

“This is such a high risk business, even the most aggressive programs can’t give you an insurance policy against another spill,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the presidential commission that investigated the blowout and ways to stop future ones.

Five years later, that’s among the most sobering of lessons from The Big Spill.

New standards, but tough enough?

Even before the blowout, the Macondo well — named after the fictional village in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude after BP auctioned the naming rights for a United Way fundraiser — was in trouble, behind schedule and over budget.

Located a mile below the ocean’s surface, the well had been drilled another 2.5 miles beneath the sea floor and was under intense pressure. At some point, investigators found, oil started moving up the bore hole and into combustible well fluids, triggering a massive explosion on the Deepwater surface rig.

In the years since, the Obama administration has written new rules to improve equipment critical in the Deepwater failure, though some have taken quite awhile. On Monday, the administration proposed new rules for blowout preventers — a device attached to the wellhead that proved to be the most critical flaw in the Deepwater explosion.

But calls for a regulatory agency that could oversee safety — akin to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was created after the Three-Mile Island reactor meltdown in 1979 — have gone unanswered.

Instead, critics say energy companies still are allowed to largely police themselves.

The industry-controlled American Petroleum Institute established two command posts in Texas and Louisiana, something that didn’t exist before, outfitted with equipment and emergency teams to rapidly respond to spills. About a hundred new industry standards all emphasize safety, said Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council.

“There’s always been a great emphasis on safety, but the attitude now toward zero accidents and incidents is probably higher across the industry,” he said.

U.S. Department of Interior officials point to a drop in injuries and accidents tied to drilling in the Gulf of about 14 percent from 2009 numbers. But critics note that the number of operating wells also has declined at the same time.

“It’s like saying we had fewer concussions by playing fewer football games,” said Bob Deans, Director of Strategic Engagement for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Bob Bea — an expert on risk management, a former Shell executive and civil engineering professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley — believes new federal regulations haven’t gone far enough for an industry that has historically pushed the envelope on its technology.

“There is no speedometer,” he said. “Commercial aviation had to go through the same historic transition as nuclear power. I want to feel that on these offshore rigs, but I don’t.”

The Gulf Petri Dish

Though direct exposure to the slick took a heavy toll on sea life — from plankton to shrimp to oysters and larval tuna — the spill did not wipe out the Gulf as some environmentalists feared. Initially, scientists found its warm waters remarkably resilient. One study found that natural bacteria had helped gobble up much of the oil.

But subsequent work has begun to reveal wider and potentially lingering ripple effects. Last year, University of Miami researchers discovered oil, even at low levels, could impair the swimming of baby mahi-mahi, said University of Miami ichthyologist Martin Grosell, who teaches at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“These fish looked fine and perfectly healthy until they were put to the test,” he said in an email.

Grosell also found oil caused potentially fatal heart damage to bluefin tuna, already overfished and fighting a population decline of about 40 percent over the last 75 years. The Gulf is one of only two spawning grounds worldwide for the fish.

Among the most disturbing trends was a spike in bottlenose dolphin deaths that began before the spill. Any link to the spill remains uncertain.

One of the biggest surprises for Graham was just how little had been learned about the environmental impacts of oil spills after the Exxon Valdez coated 1,300 miles of Alaska coast in oozy crude in 1989.

“There hadn’t been much progress in 20 years,” he said.

The BP spill has begun to change that. Within a month of the accident, BP offered to fund $550 million in research, and set up the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative headed by former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell. The initiative, governed by a 19-member panel of scientists with about 2,100 participating so far, decided to focus research on five broad categories: biology, chemistry, geology, oceanography and public health over 10 years.

“Most studies are funded for three to five years,” Colwell said. “To have a 10-year coordinated study is absolutely magnificent.”

Tricky slicks

In the days after the spill, Gulf coast towns from Louisiana to Key West readied for what they expected to be devastating waves of crude. Much of the oil never arrived.

Instead, it remained far out at sea, steered by currents scientists knew little about and spun by the earth’s rotation into a massive underwater ball like a spinning top, said UM’s Tamay Özgökmen, a mechanical engineer overseeing a team of 40 scientists looking at how oil moves in the ocean.

To their surprise, the team discovered the currents can change by the hour and can be seen by plane — but not the satellites they typically depend on to record currents. After the spill, the currents acted like highways, with exit ramps. If scientists can better understand the timing and movement of the currents, Özgökmen said they can better direct rescue crews to contain spills.

“We want to find the highways, the I-95s, from the air,” he said. “Those are what characterize most of the oil transport. They dictate where the oil goes.”

Drill baby, drill — still

Environmentalists initially believed the unfolding disaster would finally force the oil industry to retreat. Instead, the opposite has happened.

Though Gulf production slowed a bit, overall domestic production increased, reversing a two-decade slide — the U.S. collected $7.4 billion in revenue in 2014. And the Obama administration has only opened more offshore zones to exploration and potential drilling. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed issuing new leases for drilling off the East Coast, as well as the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, where the administration cleared the way this month for Shell to explore by upholding an old lease.

In recent years, polls have shown the majority of the public continues to support offshore drilling.

As for BP, once one of the soundest companies on the planet, its stock values plunged in the aftermath of the spill.

Today, its has largely rebounded, though not quite to its pre-spill value. As the fifth anniversary of the spill approached, the company began running a national advertising touting its renewed commitment to the safety and the Gulf.

Yet even as the federal government opens more areas to exploration, critics complain Congress has failed to pass a single law to increase drilling safety or tighten rules on offshore leases by, for instance, awarding them to safe operators not just the highest bidders.

“The reason quite frankly is the oil and the gas industry gets it’s way on Capitol Hill,” said Deans of the NRDC.

Send lawyers and money

Just like with environmental impacts, it may take years more to total up the economic costs of the spill — particularly for BP.

So far, the British energy giant says the spill has cost it nearly $30 billion between cleanup, legal settlements, government fines, seafood testing, and assorted other costs. The bills are likely to keep coming.

BP, which already agreed to pay $4 billion after pleading guilty to criminal charges including manslaughter, could be on the hook for up to $13.7 billion more in the federal government’s environmental case.

And then there are the people and businesses — motels, fishing guides and restaurants, even gas stations and energy-related companies that shut down in the wake of the spill — who claim damages to either property or income.

BP had initially pledged $20 billion in settlement money but the final figure remains uncertain, complicated by ongoing disputes over the legitimacy of many claims.

Lawyers say those cases could drag on for years with as many as 3,000 to 7,000 unsettled cases winding up in court. The deadline for submitting claims is June 8 — more than five years after the blowout.

Kenneth Feinberg, the Boston attorney who oversaw compensation for 9/11 victims and handed out more than $6 billion in claims for BP before the company asked the courts to take over in 2012, has said he doubts any oil company would ever pay out so much money in settlements again, calling it an “aberration.”

But Steve Herman, who co-chairs the plaintiff’s steering committee, said another massive spill could produce another mega-settlement — given the leverage the government, which awards oil leases and buys huge amounts of fuel, holds over the industry.

“You have a lot of unique factors coming together contributing to BP doing something fairly unprecedented,” he said. “But if the same thing happened with Exxon next year, God forbid, Exxon might do the same thing.”