1. Opinion

Column: How to prevent another Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster

Published Apr. 17, 2015

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.

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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.


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