Threats of High-Risk Drilling Remain Year After Gulf Oil Spill

One year ago, the BP oil spill had just started turning the Gulf of Mexico’s blue waters to the color of rust. Triggered on April 20, 2010 by a well-rig explosion that killed 11 people, the spill would gush more than 200 million gallons of crude oil—the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Before the…

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One year ago, the BP oil spill had just started turning the Gulf of Mexico’s blue waters to the color of rust. Triggered on April 20, 2010 by a well-rig explosion that killed 11 people, the spill would gush more than 200 million gallons of crude oil—the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Before the well was finally capped three months later, untold numbers of birds, dolphins, sea turtles and other wildlife had perished in the muck, or possibly from the chemicals used to disperse it. Along the Gulf coast, communities suffered as tourism dropped and fishing seasons closed. Anxiety soared amid debates over the spill’s price tag—including who would pay for it. While it is undeniable that the spill has caused and will continue to cause massive damage to Gulf ecosystems and communities, we won’t understand the full impact for years.

One thing, however, is clear: the BP spill brought more to the surface than just crude oil. It exposed a culture of corruption in the federal agency tasked with issuing and overseeing permits to drill for oil in our nation’s coastal waters. The Minerals Management Service systematically disregarded bedrock environmental protections by granting the oil industry exemptions to these laws and allowing BP and other companies to drill without concrete plans to clean up oil in the event of a large spill. This helps explain why it took BP a full three months—and numerous failed attempts—to cap the well. It simply wasn’t prepared.

Although the MMS was dismantled shortly after these revelations of corruption, there still remains the threat of drilling without a plan in challenging environments. Next Tuesday, Earthjustice will be in court challenging the government’s approval of deepwater exploration plans in the Gulf of Mexico—granted with inadequate environmental review.

Further north, Shell Oil continues to knock at the Arctic Ocean’s door, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement—the successor agency to the MMS that is proving far too similar to its lax forebear—seems more than willing to let it in. Earthjustice is challenging BOEMRE’s hasty approval of Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic, which the company hopes to do in the summer of 2012, despite any realistic plan to contain a spill in those formidable waters. The scale of damage in the Gulf, even with major resources and temperate weather, demonstrates that spill cleanup in the icy Arctic—where access to resources and good weather are in short supply—is a practical impossibility.

Back in the Gulf, tar balls still wash up on the beach and stretches of prime coastal wildlife habitat remain under a blanket of thick, sticky crude. Nonetheless, much of the spilled oil has disappeared—scattered to the ocean’s depths by tons of untested chemical dispersants.

We know very little about the safety of the chemicals used to facilitate such great vanishing acts. In May 2010, Earthjustice filed a Freedom of Information Act request to discover the secret ingredients of approved chemical dispersants, including two that were being used in the Gulf. We are now pursuing information on dispersant toxicity, as well as better oversight of how these potentially dangerous chemicals are tested, approved and used.

But secrecy and poor oversight of energy extraction aren’t unique to offshore oil drilling. We find these very same elements in the industrial gas drilling boom now sweeping across the country, which is driven by a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing—popularly known as fracking. In the technique, drillers shoot a mixture of water and secret chemicals deep underground to force natural gas from microscopic cracks in shale rock thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. The problem is that these chemicals, along with radioactive material and other toxics unearthed during fracking, too often find their way into drinking water supplies, which threatens our health.

Across the country, some 650 different chemicals are used in various combinations to get gas out of the shale rock, but similar to the secrecy surrounding chemical dispersants, companies refuse to fully disclose the identities of the toxic chemicals they are using. And thanks to a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act, they aren’t currently required to. The secrecy is extreme: industry even refused to disclose names to an E.R. doctor who was trying to save a nurse’s life—a nurse who faced multiple organ failure after she was exposed to fracking fluid while trying to help a contaminated gas field worker.

The pace of new fracking has overwhelmed some states’ capacity to adequately review permits. Environmental regulators in Pennsylvania, for example, have admitted they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing permits to frack, about as much time as it takes to get a haircut. Permits are granted with practically no scrutiny and few, if any, are rejected. As more and more fracking rigs roll into Pennsylvania and other states in the gas boom’s path, more gallons of fracking fluid will be pumped into the ground, more wastewater will be generated, and drinking water supplies will face increasing risks of contamination. Fracking is a disaster waiting to happen, and it’s time we all paid more attention to its inherent risks.

Hydraulic fracturing, deepwater oil production in the Gulf and drilling in the Arctic Ocean are all symptoms of the same problem: the era of easily recoverable fossil fuels is over. Oil and gas companies increasingly must turn to extreme environments and techniques—at great cost and risk—to extract coal, oil and gas.

 We won’t stop these practices overnight, which is why we have to demand that they are done with the utmost attention to safety and environmental protection—the BP spill reminds us of the result if proper care isn’t taken. But we can affirm that these extremes of fossil fuel production aren’t the frontier we should be exploring. The future is in clean, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and we must expand in this direction without any further delay.


Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”

Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.

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