This Friday, it will be exactly two years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in flames in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst offshore oil spill in US history.
The undersea gusher let an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude into the Gulf before it was finally capped five months later. That dwarfs the 750,000 barrels (at most) dumped into Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989, which seemed like a pretty big deal at the time.
During the 150 days or so that the oil was gushing from the seafloor some 18,000 feet down, scientists and environmentalists feared an ecological catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, and President Obama imposed restrictions on offshore drilling. It looked for a while as though the nation might have come to a crossroads in its century-long love affair with oil. If ever there was a time to learn some hard lessons and rethink the way we produce and use petroleum, this would have been it.
It didn’t turn out that way, though, for a variety of reasons. The spill clearly had some ecological impact on the Gulf region, and scientists are still weighing the long-term consequences. But despite the heart-wrenching images of oil-soaked birds, it’s hardly as if the area has turned into some kind of dead zone. The greatest harm that’s actually been measured, aside from the 11 deaths of oil-rig workers, is economic, including losses to the local fishing and tourism industry. BP is still negotiating a settlement with more than 100,000 plaintiffs over billions of dollars in damages.
But if anyone really thought that the nation’s appetite for oil would somehow be reined in by the images of gushing oil, think again. While imported oil is a perpetual bogeyman thanks to the constant threat of supply cutoffs by countries that hate us, oil itself is vital to the nation’s economic health — until and unless we utterly transform our transportation infrastructure, of course, which is not happening soon. Better fuel economy standards will help: that’s partly why a January Energy Information Administration report said in January that the US will reduce its reliance on foreign oil over the next decade.
That’s great, but the same report says that this reduced reliance will come largely because of an enormous boom in domestic supplies of oil and natural gas. The gas comes from the controversial technique known as fracking. Most of the oil comes not from undersea wells, but rather from drilling in the surprisingly rich Bakken shale formation in North Dakota — a mixed blessing for the state in some ways, but far too profitable for anyone to think seriously about abandoning.
Some of that oil may end up flowing through the infamous Keystone XL pipeline, whose cancellation was touted as a great triumph by activists a few months ago. Turns out the pipeline isn’t quite as canceled as it used to be: the president has put its southern segment, which has far fewer environmental issues than the northern part, on the regulatory fast track. The fact that gasoline is pushing $4 a gallon in an election year could be a factor — just as politics is plausibly a factor in the administration’s announcement last fall that it would encourage “robust oil and gas development” in the Gulf starting this year, and why the president included oil drilling as part of the “all-of-the-above” energy strategy he outlined in this year’s State of the Union address.
It’s hardly just politics, though. It’s the fact that the American economy has evolved to be dependent on road transportation, especially since the 1950s. True, Americans have been driving less lately, thanks to the recession and high gasoline prices. The trend is stronger among young people, according to a new report. But since the population is still growing, the prospects of reducing our oil consumption drastically are pretty remote at this point.
There has been a big effort, on the other hand, to rethink our relationship with deep-water oil wells: both the Department of the Interior and BP put new safety rules into effect in the aftermath of the spill, and a presidential commission followed with a major report on the disaster a little over a year ago. Among the commission’s recommendations were a call for more government oversight and protection for whistleblowers who notice safety lapses.
Unfortunately, those recommendations seem to be going nowhere, according to Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and one of two scientists who served on the commission. “Unfortunately,” he wrote in a commentary published in Nature this week, “the US Congress – caught up in partisan rancor, including debates about expanding offshore oil drilling – has failed to adopt legislation to address the lessons learned and the recommendations of the oil-spill commission and others.”
Those who care about the environment in general or climate change in particular clearly hoped that the Deepwater Horizon disaster would have loosened oil’s iron grip on America’s transportation infrastructure.
Turns out it didn’t happen.