Five years after the catastrophic BP oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico and coastal states still are experiencing an uncertain recovery. Though BP has spent billions of dollars on the cleanup and damages, the full environmental impact will not be known for years. Tens of thousands of people still have not received a decision on their claims for economic damages. And though the government imposed new safety procedures and tougher enforcement, those reforms are untested and rely heavily on voluntary compliance by the private sector. Meanwhile, offshore drilling is rebounding and the dangerous environment of deepwater exploration in the gulf is taking a bigger role in America's energy future.
Several major issues are settled on the fifth anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 men and spewed oil in the gulf for 87 days after the April 20, 2010, blowout. The federal judge overseeing the case ruled that 3.19 million barrels of oil were released in the gulf, clearing the way for a determination on the fines BP faces under the Clean Water Act that could reach nearly $14 billion. Federal-state trustees are examining the long-term environmental fallout, and early restoration projects are under way in the five gulf states, including Florida, which look to repair everything from bird and turtle habitats to the fisheries. And Congress has dedicated 80 percent of all Clean Water Act penalties for gulf restoration. Whatever that ultimate dollar figure may be, the framework for this recovery is solid: The money will go to the very water body damaged and toward projects that contribute to the gulf in a comprehensive way.
Scientists, though, warn it will take years to measure the spill's impact on dolphins, fisheries, coral, marshes and other marine life and habitat. Trustees for the federal-state environmental study were so incensed that BP used this anniversary to claim that the gulf was "returning to its baseline condition" that the group issued a press release last month blasting the statement as misleading, inappropriate and premature.
Offshore drilling is safer thanks to the reforms in company operations, government regulation and emergency plans from both the public and private sectors. The government imposed new requirements for safety training and testing equipment, ordered tougher designs for well casings and cementing, and only last week raised the standards for blowout preventers, a tool used as a last line of defense that was one of several failures that led to the loss of the Deepwater rig.
The Interior Department has reorganized its oversight mission and become vastly more attuned to public safety, nearly doubling the number of safety inspectors in the gulf from 2010. But the disaster also exposed the huge gap between capabilities that existed on paper and those that never materialized over the months that oil spewed into the gulf.
What's more, while gulf production has not recovered to pre-disaster levels, 2014 was the busiest year since the blowout. More floating deepwater rigs operate in the gulf today than before the spill. The appetite for gulf oil — especially in deep water — is not abating, either. The major oil companies bid a combined $539 million last month for 1 million acres in the gulf, with the most popular tracts in deep water. Even with the drop in oil prices, companies are planning long-term. And for all the talk of clean energy and low-carbon fuel choices, gulf oil is and will remain a key component of this nation's energy mix for years.
The claims process has been the most inconsistent and frustrating aspect of the recovery effort. BP paid $12.3 billion by April to individuals and businesses affected by the spill, and another $1.7 billion in cleanup, tourism marketing and other costs. But the process has been too confusing and time-consuming, especially for small and seasonal businesses that rely on families for staffing and cash for capital.
With a June 8 deadline looming for most people and businesses to file a claim, the administrator of the settlement fund, Patrick Juneau, appeared in Tallahassee last week before the state Senate Agriculture Committee. He faced new questions about the hassle and delays residents in the Panhandle are facing in getting claims processed. About one-third of the 306,000 claims filed since the settlement went into force three years ago are still awaiting action. That's the experience in Florida, where about 30,000 of 90,000 claims filed are waiting to be approved or denied. Juneau told lawmakers it could take another two years to clear the backlog. This halting, overly litigious and underfunded process scarred many communities in the same way that oil fouled the shorelines — putting families out of work, starving businesses, and disrupting the money supply that enables entire regions to thrive and grow.
The disaster forced the oil industry and the government to take a hard look at the risks of offshore drilling. The new safety protocols, tougher enforcement and more severe financial penalties will make the major players more vigilant and keep out the most under-capitalized and reckless operations. Reforms are good, but it's worth noting that the industry and the nation were not prepared to deal with a catastrophe five years ago despite the involvement of the deepest pockets and the best minds in the business.
The federal-state trustees were right to maintain that the jury is still out, and to underscore that the "effects of this spill are likely to last for generations." They should continue to examine the environmental impacts of the spill, and the government should continue with its methodical and fair approach for apportioning reconstruction dollars.
Regulators need to continually update worker safety rules and equipment standards, especially in the face of increased drilling in the gulf and the industry's drive to deeper waters. And the court-supervised settlement program needs to examine what it needs — more staffing, clearer rules or both — to expedite the processing of outstanding claims. There is no reason to make two tragedies out of one. With so much still to learn — about the environment, the industry and the economic impact — this fifth anniversary is a good time to acknowledge that the spill remains an unsettled public challenge.