I Investigated the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. When Will We Learn From Our Mistakes?

As we find ourselves in the grip of another catastrophe, it’s worth reflecting on how the nation and the oil industry responded to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Smoke billows from controlled oil burns near the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in June 2010.
Smoke billows from controlled oil burns near the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in June 2010. (Derick E. Hingle / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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Sam Sankar is Senior Vice President of Programs at Earthjustice and was deputy chief counsel of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill commission, which led the Obama administration’s technical investigation of the blowout.

It has been more than a decade since BP’s Macondo well blew out, claiming 11 lives, creating an underwater volcano of crude oil and destroying not only the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, but also any illusion that the oil industry can be trusted with our nation’s natural resources, the public’s health and safety, or our planet’s future. To get a sense of just how flat-footed the accident caught the industry, remember that a full month after the blowout, the best solution its experts could suggest to plug the well was a “junk shot” of golf balls, tires, and other debris. (It didn’t work.)

It took 87 days for them to stop the flow. By then, 200 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf, costing the fishing industry an estimated $1 billion in lost revenue, decimating Gulf Coast tourism, killing untold millions of marine wildlife, and sickening thousands of people.

After leading the technical investigation of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, my biggest takeaway was this: nobody was prepared. Why? Because the oil industry had told everyone (including itself) that it knew what it was doing. It had bought politicians and hamstrung regulators. It had persuaded a nation that we had to hand over our future if we wanted jobs today.

Now we find ourselves in the grip of another catastrophe, and we are suffering again from complacency, poor preparation, and disregard of basic science. As workers clean up the thousands of gallons of oil spilled off the coast of Southern California, and Louisiana still reels from underwater oil leaks caused by Hurricane Ida, it’s worth reflecting on how the nation and the oil industry responded to the Deepwater Horizon disaster — including the ways that response fell short.

After studying the disaster at length, and listening to industry experts, scientists, and Gulf communities, the bipartisan Oil Spill Commission made a series of modest recommendations to improve oversight and management of drilling in federal waters. It all boiled down to three things.

First, we need to set high regulatory standards for companies that want to drill in the Gulf, and we need to enforce them. We also need to be ready for the next giant blowout, because it will happen. If another deepwater well were to blow out tomorrow in the Gulf, I know of no entity, public or private, that we could trust to quickly and reliably cap it, collect millions of gallons of spilled oil, or manage and restore damage to the region’s fisheries.

Second, we must do a much better job of understanding the impacts of the oil industry on the people and environment of the Gulf of Mexico — and balancing those impacts with the needs of other industries that rely on the Gulf.

And third, we have to make sure that when things do go wrong, we have the resources to fix the damage. Currently, our laws limit the liability that oil companies face for the spills they cause. Industry argues that without those laws, companies won’t be able to afford to insure their activities. But that approach effectively forces the American taxpayers, especially the people of the Gulf region, to accept the risks of industry self-regulation. 

More than a decade later, few of our recommendations have been adopted. There were bright spots, like the Obama administration’s Well Control and Blowout Preventer Rule–but even that one has now dimmed: when Trump came to power, a former oil industry lobbyist took over the agency that administers that rule and gutted it. (Earthjustice has challenged this rollback in court.) 

As a result, oil companies are still playing with bombs they don’t know how to defuse. And when things go wrong, it’s still American taxpayers who will be forced to deal with the financial and environmental fallout.

Consider, by contrast, our approach to auto safety. Even as the number of people driving has soared in recent decades, the number of vehicular deaths has plummeted. Why? Because the federal government — despite fierce industry opposition — required auto manufacturers to install safety systems like antilock brakes that reduce the number of accidents, and devices like airbags that minimize injuries when accidents do occur. Almost every state requires drivers to carry insurance, and high-risk drivers have to pay more to get it.

More than a decade after the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history, we still do not fully understand the risks and the damage the oil industry creates in the Gulf, let alone demand that the industry reliably control those risks. So we, America’s taxpayers, still serve as the industry’s insurance policy.

We must do better. The lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster still resonate today. It’s not too late to heed them.

It’s past time for the government to stop selling new offshore oil and gas leases, such as the one planned in the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Coast communities and the marine creatures that live alongside them are already suffering from rising temperatures, flooding, and pollution.They cannot afford new fossil fuel development that will heighten the climate crisis and raise the risk of another major spill. 

Earthjustice is in court challenging the Biden administration’s recent decision to offer up over 80 million acres of the Gulf for oil and gas drilling. Show your support by calling on the Biden administration to end all new fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters.

This blog was originally published in April 2020. It has been updated to reflect the Biden administration’s actions.

Sam Sankar (@sambhavsankar) is Earthjustice’s Senior Vice President for Programs. He leads the development of Earthjustice’s strategies for carrying out its mission, and coordinates the work of our Litigation, Communications, and Policy and Legislation departments.