The nation has made uneven progress in the four years since the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded and sank in April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. States, cities and businesses are recovering. The environmental health of the gulf has become a national priority. Safety reforms are improving drilling operations and increasing the government's ability to respond to a future disaster. But there is much more work to be done. • It will be years before a more complete picture emerges of the spill's impact on public health, private property and families' livelihoods. The extent of the environmental damage may not be known for decades. Many of the safety improvements exist more on paper than in practice. And the Obama administration and Congress are still pursuing oil and natural gas exploration in risky, deep-water environments at the expense of safer clean-energy options.
Damages. BP has paid more than $13 billion in individual and business claims and government damages. It agreed to pay $4 billion to settle federal criminal charges, and it reached a medical settlement that could provide an estimated 200,000 people with health care services for decades.
BP's final tab, though, is far from clear. The company has contested payouts under a court-approved civil settlement it signed, and it is challenging the government's claims that the spill poured 206 million gallons of oil into the gulf. Reducing the estimate of how much oil was spilled could save BP billions of dollars in federal Clean Water Act fines. In March, BP agreed to new safety and operational rules that cleared a suspension action by the Environmental Protection Agency, paving the way for BP to be eligible for new government drilling contracts in the gulf.
Environment. The ecological impact of an oil spill and bloom that covered almost 360 square miles is far from clear. Tar mats continue to wash up on some gulf beaches. Two major studies last year showed serious damage to dolphins in heavily oiled areas and to the deep-water sediment that acts as the base of the gulf's food chain.
The federal government is still assessing the damage as part of a comprehensive effort to guide the recovery, and thanks to the RESTORE Act passed after the spill, 80 percent of the fines will be directed to the gulf. In the meantime, BP has paid money up front for restoration, and federal, state and local officials across the gulf have set priorities. The most recent and largest phase, at $627 million, includes $106 million for projects in Florida. That includes $19 million for a fish hatchery and $12 million to rebuild salt marsh habitat along the Panhandle.
Safety. Investigations into the accident led to new regulatory and industry standards for well design, training and emergency response. But Congress has failed to enshrine the most meaningful safety reforms into law, leaving it to the Obama administration and its successors to police the industry.
This is a recipe for trouble. The government is still developing its well containment and response capabilities even as it seeks to open more offshore areas to the risks of deep-water drilling. For all the talk of safety after the BP disaster, the number of injuries in gulf rigging operations remains stubbornly high. Even after the 2010 spill, some years have seen worse safety records — more fires, more spills, more wells out of control. Only in February did the administration propose nearly doubling the $75 million cap on oil-spill liability — the first administrative increase in the fine's 24-year history.
Diversification. While the Obama administration touts its "all-of-the-above" energy policy, the gulf remains a critical spigot for oil and gas, providing the bulk of mineral revenue to the government. The greatest untapped resources are in the deep and ultra-deep waters.
So drilling will likely ramp up in the coming years even as the administration pursues fuel-efficiency measures, clean-energy production and a global pact on climate change. Those approaches conflict, but since the BP disaster regulators have approved nearly all of the hundreds of exploratory plans for the gulf. The area now hosts 6,000 leases across 31 million acres, and under a new drilling plan, the government hopes to open up another 94 million acres by 2017.
The images of the burning rig and the oiled wildlife have given way to a sterile discussion over picking up from here, even as the government and the oil drilling industry cast an eye toward 90 billion barrels of untapped resources. The government's attempt to balance the nation's energy needs, workplace safety and the health of the gulf has produced a mixed record. With work still in progress, the government should recommit to protecting a natural resource that is so crucial to the economy of Florida and other coastal states. The speed at which the industry cleaned up its act after Deepwater Horizon underscores that the reforms were not as impossible as it claimed for so many years.
On this fourth anniversary of America's worst environmental disaster, the nation should refocus on reducing the need for offshore drilling, exploring alternative energy sources and continuing to restore the gulf habitat and the communities that were harmed.
See the video below on the continuing effects of the gulf oil spill.
BP spill, then and today By the numbers
11 Number of workers killed in explosion of Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, April 20, 2010
Gallons of oil spilled by Exxon Valdez, March 1989
Gallons of oil estimated spilled by Deepwater Horizon, April-July 2010
Number of vessels used in Deepwater response
5,339 Number of allied vessels used in Normandy invasion
5 Number of significant spills in Gulf of Mexico in 2010
8 Number of significant spills in gulf in 2012
$13.4 billion BP's year-end profit, 2013
Sources: BP; U.S. Navy; Coast Guard; Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement; Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration