The worst man-made environmental disaster in the history of America began on April 20, 2010. The Deepwater Horizon, a modern drilling rig exploring for oil and gas more than 3 miles below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, exploded and sank two days later. • Eleven men were killed and 16 injured. Almost half a billion barrels of oil spilled into the gulf, causing incalculable damage to sea life and human life. More than $2 billion has already been spent in the effort to contain and mitigate the direct damage of the spill, and economic losses to gulf fishermen and tourism are still being calculated. It could be a decade or more before the long-term effects on the health of coastal residents and sea life can be assessed.
America's confidence in the private sector oil and gas industry was shaken. America's confidence in the capability of government to oversee an inherently risky use of public lands took another hit.
What caused this disaster?
With few exceptions, there has been a culture of complacency around safety issues within the oil and gas industry. This can be traced back to the wildcatter — the man who single-handedly brought in the oil wells of the American Southwest. The casualty in this Wild West culture has been safety.
Government regulation has been woefully underfunded, sometimes incompetent and often characterized by a cozy — literally and figuratively — relationship with the industry it is supposed to regulate. This situation has contributed to a pattern of industrial accidents that are among the highest in the world's oil- and gas-extracting nations.
Multiple failures on the Deepwater Horizon cascaded into the explosion on the rig: At least nine human and mechanical failures, oversights and misinterpretations led to the disaster. This was not an act of nature; it was a completely preventable human tragedy.
The response to the blowout was antiquated, slow and initially ineffective. The first major U.S. oil spill since 1989, when the Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska, the Horizon disaster dwarfed Exxon Valdez in scale and impact. Stunningly, in those 20 intervening years, no progress had been made in technology or procedures to contain an oil spill or protect the water and land areas affected. It was almost a month after April 20 before an effective response was mounted and another two months before the spill, which spewed upwards of 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf, was contained.
A fundamental question is whether we will learn from the Deepwater Horizon disaster and apply those lessons for a safer future.
Our commission is urging the offshore oil and gas industry to follow in the path of other high-risk industries such as nuclear power and chemical, which have established industry organizations to assure the highest standards of safety and complement effective governmental regulation. Each of these organizations was established in the wake of a disaster — Three Mile Island and Bhopal. It is an open question as to whether the offshore industry leaders will see Deepwater Horizon as a similar mandate and opportunity to act.
As a result of the Deepwater disaster, the Obama administration has committed to improving the offshore safety culture and the relationship between the federal government and industry before allowing further expansion of deepwater exploration and production. It's unclear, however, whether the new Congress — many of them elected on a pledge to reduce the size and influence of the federal government — will support urgently needed safety reforms in the practices and regulation of the offshore industry.
This is a wakeup call to the American people. Why are we drilling in deeper and inherently more risky offshore locations? The United States is consuming about 22 percent of the world's daily extraction of petroleum while it sits on top of less than 1.5 percent of the world's proved reserves. If we "drill baby drill" in an attempt to go totally independent, and if our thirst for petroleum continues at its current level, the United States will drain its remaining proven domestic oil reserves by 2031.
If we stay at our current 48 percent domestic and 52 percent imported oil, that date will only be extended to 2068. Unless we develop and sustain a national energy policy which will fundamentally change our petroleum addiction, the only choice our generation will have is whether to leave to our children or to our grandchildren an America totally dependent on foreign oil producers for its national security, economy and way of life.
I trust we will learn the lessons of Deepwater Horizon better than that.
Bob Graham is the co-chair of the Presidential Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. He was governor of Florida from 1979-1987 and represented the state as a U.S. senator from 1987-2005.