June 20, 2018
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A Year After the Gulf Spill

Gerald Herbert | AP FILE
Gerald Herbert | AP FILE
The Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, off the southeast tip of Louisiana.

A year ago, an explosion badly damaged the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people. Oil spewed from the underwater well for three months while increasingly desperate attempts were made to cap the well. On the first anniversary of this disaster, environmental groups will tout lessons learned and policy changes that are needed to ensure such a disaster doesn’t happen again.

What is most interesting a year later is how little has changed. Americans were outraged and saddened by images of oil fouling marshes, killing fish and leaving petroleum-soaked birds flightless. Contributions were made to help fishermen who were forced to tie up their boats, and pledges were made to be more energy efficient. Executives at BP, the owner of the well, were excoriated for their seeming indifference.

But in reality, oil still flows from the gulf and demand for it continues to climb.

The real lesson from the Deepwater Horizon seems to be that Americans have a high level of tolerance for mayhem, as long as it is far away and doesn’t cause them much inconvenience.

This doesn’t mean that efforts to decrease fossil fuel consumption — through conservation and the advancement of cleaner, domestic sources of energy — aren’t needed, just that the work is harder than many thought.

If one of the world’s largest oil spills, open-ended wars in the Middle East and rising oil prices aren’t enough to spur Americans to push for a smarter national energy policy, what will it take?

If the Deepwater Horizon spill taught us anything, it is that the technology to seek and retrieve oil and gas in increasingly remote — and technically dangerous — places has outstripped the capabilities to deal with problems.

At the same time, it showed that looking to the government to stop oil spills and spearhead cleanup work isn’t realistic. Oil companies, not the federal government, have the equipment and technical know-how to deal with spills on land and under the ocean. As we saw during the months of work to cap the gulf well, that knowledge is woefully incomplete. Dumping golf balls down the broken pipe — the so-called “junk shot” — did nothing to inspire pubic confidence in BP’s ability to handle the disaster.

Fortunately, serious problems are rare — there are thousands of drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico alone, and explosions, fortunately, are rare. But, as the BP spill showed, when there is a problem, the consequences are catastrophic.

Two months into the disaster, President Barack Obama addressed the nation: “Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude,” he said.

These were good points that had been made hundreds of times before. Yet, perennial congressional inaction on an aggressive energy policy shows that leadership, not a lack of statistics, is what is missing.

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