Five years ago, following a blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers, the nation was spellbound by the 87-day visual of oil flowing freely into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico from the Macondo well. The 3.1 million barrels of spewed oil has been called “the world’s largest accidental marine spill” and “the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.”
Looking back, CNN reports: “There were dire predictions of what would follow. Environmentalists and others braced for an environmental collapse on a massive scale.” Indeed, there were extreme claims including one from Matt Simmons, known for his peak oil alarmism, who predicted the crude would “float all the way to Ireland.”
Now, 5 years later, however, we see that, while the Deepwater Horizon accident was a tragedy, the dramatic claims were hyperbole. Nevertheless, lessons have been learned—both regarding the resilience of the environment and safe and reliable offshore operations.
Louisiana’s Senator David Vitter reflects: “In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I’ve been working with my colleagues to ensure this kind of tragedy never happens again. The spill, and then President Obama’s completely misguided offshore drilling moratorium, caused economic chaos in Louisiana. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned, and while many important reforms have been made, there is still a lot of work toward recovery and implementing the important RESTORE Act.”
In preparation for the spill’s 5-year anniversary, BP issued an extensive report: Environmental Recovery and Restoration—which concludes, according to BloombergBusiness, the spill “didn’t do lasting damage to the ecosystem.” It isn’t surprising to hear BP attempt to burnish its badly tarnished image, but after BP has spent $28 billion on cleanup and claims, others seem to agree with them.
While marshes were oiled, businesses have struggled, beaches were closed, and the restoration continues, it hasn’t been the ecological cliff that anti-petroleum groups predicted.
Despite the 13 miles of coast that suffered from “heavy oiling,” Science Magazine reports: “Nature has bounced back in surprising ways.” It states: “Brown pelicans were a poster child of the oil spill’s horrors, for instance, but there’s no sign the population as a whole has fallen. Shrimp numbers in the bay actually rose the year after the spill.” And, the state’s bayside sparrows, which had less productive nests in oiled areas, haven’t suffered “a drop in overall numbers.” Common minnows suffered a variety of abnormalities for “up to a year after the spill. Scientists have found no evidence, however,” that they “have caused fish numbers to drop in Louisiana’s estuaries.” Even the ants are starting to “come back and stay.”
Blum & Bergeron exports dried shrimp and is in its third generation of family ownership. It was just recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita when, according to Louis Blum, Jr., “Here comes BP.” He says: “It ruined our industry and us for the whole year.” Blum had to let his employees go and nearly closed the business forever. The International Business Times reports: “The company eventually collected about $106,000 from BP.” While it has been a struggle, the employees are back and sales have “returned to pre-spill levels.”
BloombergBusiness confirms: “Wildlife populations have bounced back.” Though dolphins and osyters are an exception, reports indicate that both experienced elevated mortality rates beginning before the spill.
Oysters are fickle and are impacted by “salinity, water temperature, and parasites.” The freshwater used to flush out the oil, combined with Louisiana’s diversion of fresh water into the Gulf and Mississippi River flooding in 2011, have all reduced salinity. Science cites third-generation oysterman Pete Vujnovich’s story. “After the spill, he bought rock and shell for replenishing some of his reefs with money from a compensation fund set up by BP. Those areas seem to be doing well. But older reefs are much less fertile than they were before.” It continues: “Scientists don’t have an answer for him. In 2012 and 2013, researchers put cages of oysters in the bay, some in places with oil, others in places that had dodged the spill, to see how mature oysters fared. They didn’t see a difference.”
Marsh erosion is another problem that began before the spill but went “into overdrive” after. Science points out: Flood control projects along the Mississippi River starve the bay of fresh sediment from upstream. Now, vegetation has grown back and erosion rates have subsided.
In the popular vacation town of Grand Isle, whose beaches remained closed for three years, Jean Landry, a local program manager for The Nature Conservancy, says: “This summer feels more positive than any in the last 5 years. You see people coming back to their summer homes rather than renting them out to cleanup workers.”
The water is clean and, “according to Food and Drug Administration tests on edible seafood, shows no excess of hydrocarbons in the region’s food supply.” It is important to realize, according to the National Research Council estimates, “every year, the equivalent of 560,000 to 1.4 million barrels of oil—perhaps a quarter of the amount that BP spilled—seeps naturally from the floor of the Gulf.”
“The overall message is upbeat,” according to Ed Overton, an LSU chemist, who has spent years tracking chemical changes in the Deepwater oil that washed ashore. As quoted in Science, Overton says: “I think the big story is, it’s remarkable how Mother Nature can cure herself. It’s really hard to find permanent impacts.” Likewise, CNN states: “Ocean conservationist Philippe Cousteau witnessed much of the spill’s aftermath in 2010, but when he returned to the Gulf to dive near an oil rig last month, he was astonished by the abundance of amberjacks, hammerhead sharks and other marine life he saw.”
The Deepwater Horizon spill has taught us a lot about the resiliency of Mother Nature. While the Macondo crude oil didn’t float to Ireland and the permanent impacts are “hard to find,” no one ever wants to experience anything like it again. The accident, according to the Journal of Petroleum Technology, “spawned new technology, improved safety practices, and better operations awareness.”
Some of the new technology to prevent spills from occurring includes major revisions to pressure control equipment and well design standards, such as casing and cementing. For example, new equipment that can shear and seal joints and eliminate nonshearable sections, and technology that can provide information on the wellbore environment in close to real time has been introduced.
Improved safety practice is the focus of the new Center for Offshore Safety (COS), formed by the industry in 2011. COS executive director Charlie Williams reports: “Today the energy industry has established nearly 300 standards to help govern safe and reliable offshore operations”—many of which have been adopted into the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) new federal regulations.
Addressing operational awareness, Williams says: “I think there were many people that were prepared before Horizon. BSEE has required a lot of new things, including new ways of calculating how big a response you need.” He added: “The detail with which people understand the plan in both companies and the government has improved.”
“This tragedy has made us stronger as we continue to work to improve our state.” Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) said in a statement. “We have seen increased safety standards on deepwater production platforms in the Gulf, we have seen an increased spill response plan from the energy industry, and we will continue working to ensure the preservation of our beloved wetlands.”
The post-Deepwater Horizon world will continue to need oil and natural gas. Globally, and in the Gulf, drilling is continuing. While the industry will keep making changes and improvements based on the lessons learned at Macondo, we do not live in a risk-free world. We can manage and mitigate the potential hazards.
Dr. Rita Colwell, chairman of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, an independent organization that studies the Gulf of Mexico ecology, the effects of the spill, and methods for cleanup and restoration, said: “It’s very important to know after all the studies are done, the best lessons learned are of where we should go, how we should act, and what we should institute if there is a massive spill. We would hope there isn’t, but we have to be realistic. Sometimes accidents happen, and how you go in to work very quickly to minimize the effect on the environment, to maximize the recovery of the oil, to enhance the degradation of whatever is persistent and to understand the public health effects is very important.”
The president of the National Ocean Industries Association, Randall Luthi, agrees. He told me: “No well is worth the loss of a life and the Macondo Well accident was exactly that, an accident. We, in industry, have taken the lessons learned from this in an effort to make a positive out of a very negative situation. By almost everyone’s account, we are wiser, safer and smarter. Our workers live in the Gulf of Mexico region, it is their home, where they work, fish, hunt and raise their families. No one wants another accident.”
Technology and safety standards are important. But, perhaps, the best lesson learned is one that could be applied to all hyperbolic claims about environmental collapse at the hands of mankind: Mother Nature is remarkably resilient. Within a short period of time, she can cure herself.