What did we learn? From NRDC In The News.
By John D. Sutter
(CNN) — It was May when a fishing boat carrying Ed Overton and other scientists pulled away from what would become the largest accidental oil spill in history. The ocean was soupy and brown. The air tasted like gas. Some reporters looked green in the face. The oil stretched nearly from horizon to horizon.
Overton, sitting on a beanbag in the back of the boat, was upset.
“It just irritates the piss out of me that we were not prepared for a situation like this and didn’t have studies on these issues,” the Louisiana State University professor said as the boat skipped waves through the coastal marshes, heading back to shore. He added that he “should have raised more hell” about how the U.S. was unprepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.
But, even then, Overton saw a sparkle in the muck:
Maybe we all will learn something from this experience, he said.
Six months after a BP-owned offshore oil rig exploded, setting off a violent leak 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, there is still much debate about what the United States has or hasn’t learned from this disaster. As other issues — like November elections and Chilean miner rescues — dominate news cycles, there are also accusations that we’ve all turned a blind eye to the nagging problems that caused such an enormous spill in the first place.
Some things have changed in the past half-year, though.
Much of the focus has been on preventing another oil spill.
The Obama administration has issued a number of rules that aim to prevent offshore drillers from chasing petrol profits at the expense of safety.
The Department of the Interior, for example, now requires oil companies to get independent audits of their blowout prevention systems, those hulking metal contraptions that are supposed to snap oil risers in the case of an underwater explosion, and which failed on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Oil rigs also will be subjected to surprise inspections by federal regulators, according to Reuters.
The administration also restructured the Minerals Management Service, the federal regulatory agency charged with making offshore drilling safe.
Chalk up part of the change to marketing, perhaps, since that troubled agency has been rebranded as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. But the administration also separated the agency into two pieces: one that acts as a watchdog on offshore drilling, enforcing safety regulations and conducting inspections, and another that profits from issuing more offshore drilling leases.
That situation still creates a conflict of interest at the agency that has direct responsibility for keeping the risky offshore drilling industry safe, said Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. But, he said, it’s better than what happened before the spill.
“What’s clear is that they weren’t even enforcing the regulations on the books, and what’s particularly striking about this incident is that the corporations that were running this [deepwater drilling] well really weren’t subject to significant and serious inspections and regulations,” he said.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in July that would have addressed and funded these issues, Cohen said, but it did not make it to the Senate. Current efforts to regulate the industry are underfunded, he said.
The Obama administration appointed a task force to re-evaluate the country’s regulation of offshore oil exploration. A final report from that commission is due out on January 12.
Others say the spill has taught us that we should aim for the root of the problem here: the United States’ addiction to oil and fossil fuels.