Commentary: Gulf is still a mess one year after oil spill

The Miami HeraldApril 28, 2011 

One year and 206 million gallons of oil later, all that gushes from the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon is blame. Lawyers appear to outnumber the ocean microbes.

Everybody’s suing BP, while BP sues the rig owner and the maker of the blowout preventer that failed to prevent the blowout. Some folks who barely got grazed by the disaster have received settlement checks from the oil giant, while others along the Gulf who got wiped out are still waiting for compensation.

The beaches have been cleaned, but miles of once-fertile marshlands in Louisiana remain goopy and barren. Elsewhere, the shrimp and fish are rebounding, but samples show elevated levels of petroleum-based hydrocarbons. Nobody is sure how much of the BP oil remains suspended in the dark depths, or the long-term effects on marine life.

In its own way, the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident is as messy and maddening as the spill itself. Gulf Coast politicians who bashed the Obama administration for the way it handled the cleanup have also blasted federal efforts to prevent another devastating blowout.

The moratorium on deep-water drilling — which affected only a fraction of the wells in the Gulf — was denounced as a dagger in the heart of the Louisiana oil industry. Yet dire predictions of massive job cuts proved to be wrong.

A stunted view, favored by those who rely on right-wing talk shows for political instruction, is that the government’s role should have been to mop up the slop and then butt out.

But for many who live near coastlines where oil companies drill (or want to), it would be reassuring to think that the feds are using at least some of our tax dollars to protect us from future calamities. That was, in fact, a widely held assumption before the Deepwater Horizon blew up.

The truth, as we now know, is that the agency that was supposed to be monitoring offshore oil exploration had been neutered into basically a jobs program for ex-industry employees. In the wake of the Gulf spill, Obama ordered a makeover of the lame Minerals Management Service, and a more aggressive agenda.

Unfortunately — and this is the scariest part of the BP story — little has changed. Another major blowout could occur in the Gulf today, with the same harrowing results. On that point, the experts agree.

The Minerals Management Service is now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. It has a new director and a tougher slate of rules, but remains disgracefully underfunded and critically short of staff members who are experienced in petroleum engineering.

“They changed the name, but all the people are the same. It’s embarrassing,” said William K. Reilly, a former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency and co-chair of the bipartisan presidential commission investigating the BP disaster.

During the 87 excruciating days it took to cap the Macondo well, the administration was forced to rely too heavily on BP’s version of events. That’s because the government was woefully short of expertise and technology. It still is.

Far from the beaches and bays of the Gulf, members of the new Congress are working doggedly on behalf of oil lobbyists to minimize federal oversight of offshore operations. It’s as if the Deepwater Horizon blowout never happened, as if those 11 men never died.

The House is considering legislation that would expedite the approval of drilling permits along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Another measure would weaken environmental requirements for exploration in Alaskan waters.

Given the attitude in Washington, there’s no mystery why the accident rates for offshore drilling projects in the United States are higher by several times than in Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, where strict safety rules are better enforced.

Somehow the oil companies operating in those countries manage to cope with the regulations, and still make mountainous profits. How amazing.

Here in the United States, politicians fronting for the industry are counting on $4-per-gallon gas prices and a short public memory. Their optimism is well-founded, if recent polls are accurate. The images of dead sea turtles and starved pelicans are fading.

Ironically, though, the BP spill cannot disappear entirely from the news as long as people are fighting over who gets the blame, and who gets the money. It will take years to clean up that part of the mess.

In Mississippi, the city of Biloxi, which escaped the brunt of the spill, nonetheless used BP payouts to buy 14 trucks and SUVs, including a new Chevy Tahoe for the mayor. Ripoffs like this are inevitable when billions of dollars are up for grabs.

Of greater worry is a future in which coastal communities must depend on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — and the disinterested Congress that funds it — to prevent another nightmare like the Deepwater Horizon.

Only one year later, it’s way too soon to start forgetting what happened and why.

Never is too soon.

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