Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Column: How to prevent another Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we know a lot more about how to respond to oil spills at sea as well as the physical, chemical and biological consequences of a deepwater oil well blowout. But paradoxically, there has been a stunning lack of progress on national policies regulating ultra-deep drilling and production.

Rig safety and inspections have increased under the Department of the Interior in the five years since the spill, and with stricter regulations, the industry has developed new, safer technologies, including new standards for bore-hole cementing and oil well blowout preventers.

However, no new legislative requirements have been placed on the industry for an entire generation — in fact, not since the Exxon Valdez accident after which Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. In the 25 ensuing years, the petroleum business has developed an entirely new industry, drilling in waters more than a mile deep. This extreme environment — so deep, so cold and under such high pressure — leaves no margin for error. We need national policies to establish when drilling can be done safely or to say when the risk is just too great.

What policy gaps need to be closed? And just as important, what can be accomplished by this Congress and the Obama administration?

We have two specific recommendations.

First, we need to establish environmental baselines. Studies of the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have been complicated by the lack of environmental "baselines" such as oil residues in marine sediments, water and biota near the more than 4,000 oil and gas production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico alone. Having periodic baseline measurements for regions around these and proposed facilities would greatly help in assessing the impact of spills to differentiate the spill from background pollution. As bad as the BP spill was, we will never really know the pre-blowout distribution and concentration of oil that was already out there.

Second, corporations who want to drill should have to pay for those studies. Taxpayers could pay to collect such data. But marine hydrocarbons are a publicly owned resource completely extant on public lands — that is, the outer continental shelf and slope. For that reason, we believe that such data should be a condition of participation in these activities.

Congress could administratively require that such data be periodically collected by the oil companies under the supervision of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. That agency runs an environmental studies program to address the vast array of emerging issues associated with this industry. The scope of research undertaken extends from acoustics of oil exploration and the zoology of marine mammals to hydrocarbon and other contaminant chemical analysis in water and sediments.

The current annual budget from the U.S. Treasury for such studies is about $35 million to cover all of these issues, not only in the Gulf of Mexico but the Atlantic seaboard and off Alaska, where 14 new leasing sales are being proposed. Congress and President Barack Obama should consider increasing this specific budget in order to better understand drilling impacts, both individually and cumulatively, affecting marine ecosystems.

While the administration's recent proposals to strengthen the technical requirements for blowout preventers are a step in the right direction, these are not the kind of proactive steps informed by the latest science that are needed in the face of an ever-changing operating environment for offshore oil and gas production. Infusions of new money into oil spill preparedness can have important effects on the state of knowledge leading to a society better prepared to balance the risks and respond to such disasters.

As an example, the USF-led consortium C-IMAGE (Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems) was able to conduct innovative research, supported substantially from a $500 million grant from BP through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, that resulted in significant new knowledge to help advise and strengthen the response strategies and mitigate the effects of future deep blowouts. We envision the database that could be assembled with meaningful contributions required from any corporation that wanted to drill for resources in these inhospitable areas.

We can best honor the memories of the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster by ensuring that the nation has done all it can to prevent similar disasters and to limit and to fully understand the consequences of past and future spills.

Steven Murawski and David Hollander are professors in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. William Hogarth is director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography located at the USF College of Marine Science. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: How to prevent another Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster 04/17/15 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2015 6:36pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Editorial: The unknown price tags in the mayor's race

    Editorials

    St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has been busy promoting all sorts initiatives in the months leading up to the Nov. 7 election, doubling down on his progressive agenda without spending much money or generating much controversy. But make no mistake, the cost will come due after the election. Without a change in …

    The mayor is determined to get artist Janet Echelman to create a sculpture for the new Pier. But the cost would be much higher than what is allocated. Above is Echelman’s As If It Were Already Here in Boston.
  2. Massachusetts firm buys Tampa's Element apartment tower

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — Downtown Tampa's Element apartment tower sold this week to a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company that plans to upgrade the skyscraper's amenities and operate it long-term as a rental community.

    The Element apartment high-rise at 808 N Franklin St. in downtown Tampa has been sold to a Northland Investment Corp., a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company. JIM DAMASKE  |  Times
  3. Judge won't cut prison term of man who pleads obesity

    Criminal

    TAMPA — A claim of obesity won't shave time off a Tampa man's prison sentence.

    Duane Crithfield and Stephen Donaldson Sr. were sentenced to prison after marketing a fraudulent offshore tax strategy known as a "Business Protection Plan" to medical practices, offering doctors and others coverage against unlikely events such as a kidnapping.
  4. Advocates for charter, public schools argue their cases at education forum

    K12

    TAMPA — Advocates of charter schools argued for diversity in education while supporters of traditional public schools charged that state funding is stacked against them during a forum Friday titled "Choices in Education."

    Schools such as Winthrop Charter School deserve greater public support, their operators say, because they offer a choice in education that is popular among parents. Public school advocates say charter and voucher schools represent a double standard in accountability and enrollment. [WILL VRAGOVIC  |  Times]
  5. Editorial: UF shows how to preserve free speech

    Editorials

    The University of Florida was forced to navigate a treacherous terrain of constitutional concerns and public safety this week, all in a glaring public spotlight. In the end, Thursday's appearance by Richard Spencer was a success — as much as an unwelcome visit from a notorious white nationalist can be. The …