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BP oil spill still haunts off-shore drilling industry 8 years later

  • Less than a decade after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Trump administration wants to expand offshore drilling.
  • Worse still, it's calling for the repeal of the few offshore drilling safety rules that were put in place in response to Deepwater Horizon.
  • It's time to admit off-shore drilling is not worth the risk.
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this April 21, 2010
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this April 21, 2010

Eight years ago, on April 20, 2010, BP's exploratory well located just 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, blew out. The explosion killed 11 people, pumped 210 million gallons of oil into the waters off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and contaminated over 1,100 miles of coastal marshes and beaches.

It took 87 days to finally cap the well that we all saw on underwater cameras pumping seemingly endless amounts of crude oil into the Gulf the entire time. It was, as it has since been named, a disaster.

In deeply painful and long-lasting ways, the Deepwater Horizon spill showed the industry and the whole country the risks inherent in drilling, just days before the annual Earth Day celebration. Now, less than a decade later, the Trump administration is suggesting we expand the oil industry's access to pristine waters from coast to coast, including opening the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling.

Worse still, the administration is proposing this offshore drilling free-for-all while also calling for the repeal of the few offshore drilling safety rules that were put in place in response to Deepwater Horizon.

As a veteran of the oil industry, the first woman to supervise offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and a South Carolinian, I cannot help but be baffled by this decision.

"We know that it doesn't take a catastrophic spill like what we saw in the Gulf of Mexico to ruin our pristine coast. Offshore drilling is a dirty and dangerous industry."

Communities across the Southeast have boldly rejected drilling off our shores. When the Obama administration first suggested opening the Atlantic to oil and gas development in 2015, the people who live and work here came out overwhelmingly against the plan and called on their elected leaders and the administration to protect our coastal communities and economies from risky offshore drilling.

We were able to stop Atlantic drilling in 2016, but once again find ourselves fighting to protect our coast. However, this time, the opposition is even stronger.

Now, more than 190 East Coast communities, and tens of thousands of businesses, fishing and trade groups, and tourism associations have come out opposing Atlantic drilling and seismic air gun surveys. In my own state of South Carolina, every mayor in every coastal city and our state capital, as well as our Governor, oppose seismic surveys and drilling.

They are Republican and Democrat alike because protecting our coast is not a partisan issue – it's about protecting our livelihood, our health, our ocean, and everything that makes our state and coastal communities special.

We know that it doesn't take a catastrophic spill like what we saw in the Gulf of Mexico to ruin our pristine coast. Offshore drilling is a dirty and dangerous industry. There were 2,440 oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico between 1964 and 2015 resulting in a total of over 12 million gallons of oil dumped into the Gulf – excluding the disastrous Deepwater Horizon spill of over 200 million gallons.

We have seen this movie before

In 2016 alone, 497 accidents (damages, injuries and spills) involving offshore oil rigs were reported. Human error and hurricane damage to oil and gas infrastructure are leading causes of spills. If the Atlantic Ocean is opened to offshore drilling, it is not a matter of if͟ but when͟ there will be a spill. We cannot afford to let that happen.

A recent study by the non-partisan grassroots organization, Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA), highlighted that over $16 billion was spent by tourists visiting South Carolina's coast in 2017.

The analysis determined that the cumulative economic value of coastal tourism direct-spending from 2022 (when the first wells could be drilled) through 2041 could amount to more than $602 billion. This is roughly 25 times the API's best-case estimate of oil industry revenues to South Carolina over the same period.

Based on my first-hand experience in this industry, I know there is no way to make offshore drilling work for the Southeast. The onshore infrastructure, pipelines, vessel traffic and pollution that accompanies offshore drilling would devastate our beautiful beaches, healthy marshes and rivers.

It would permanently alter dozens of National Wildlife Refuges, National Seashores, state-protected areas, and ecologically important marine areas. And according to the U.S. Navy, offshore drilling would disrupt training and put military readiness at risk.

Most importantly, opening our coast to offshore drilling is a forever decision. Once oil companies obtain leases and find commercial quantities of oil and gas, by law, they are entitled to produce from those leases, drill more wells, or sell the property to another operator - forever.

We have seen this movie before, off California's coast, where oil companies have produced – and spilled - from Federal leases for over 50 years. The citizens of California began fighting the Federal government after the first Santa Barbara spill in 1969 and are still fighting to stop drilling off their coast. When the oil industry comes to town, it is impossible to make them leave.

For our economies, for our communities, for our tourism and fishing industries, for our environment, and most importantly, for our children and future generations, it's simply not worth the risk.

Commentary by Peg Howell, a petroleum engineer who has worked at sea and on-shore in the oil industry and is a founding member of SODA - Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic.

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