The following guest post is by Jacqueline Savitz, Senior Campaign Director and Senior Scientist for Oceana.
Two years ago, those of us who had made it our calling to prevent a major oil spill in the U.S. had a rude awakening. We had lost. The unspeakable had happened and it was much worse than we could have ever imagined.
As BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank, oil began gushing into the ocean at a rate of 2 and half million gallons per day. The spill released more oil in 5 days than the entire Exxon Valdez spill and it seemed as if it would never end. After a long 87 days, the gushing pipe was finally plugged, just days before the “long term fix” – the relief well – was completed.
The BP disaster raised a lot of questions about offshore drilling safety. Many reporters and friends asked me how the response actions would affect already suffering marine life. As we waited for months for this nightmare to end, there were very few response options and many of them had major downsides. For example, responders tried burning oil off of the water’s surface and using over a million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants.
Clearly, these responses weren’t satisfactory solutions. Burning the oil could harm marine life, and it would only remove a small fraction of the oil. In some cases, burns were conducted despite the fact that endangered sea turtles were present. Dispersants were no better. In addition to being toxic to some species, they increased the availability of toxic oil components to fish and other marine life in the water column, and prevented the removal of oil at the surface.
These “solutions” were not really solutions at all; they were choices between the lesser of two evils. Do we risk the burn, or do we let the oil stay on the surface? Do we use dispersants and increase the exposure to marine life, or do we let the oil blacken the beaches? These were not easy questions. But once the spill happened, these were the only questions to answer. It was too late for prevention. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t learn from it. We knew we had to make sure this never happened again.
Nobody disagreed – preventing this from happening again was imperative. Surely, once the spill was under control, the government would see offshore drilling differently, tighten the rules and develop a plan to wean our country off of its dependence on oil. There was plenty of potential in clean energy, and knowing that we had lost the fight to prevent a major oil spill, surely our government would see the need for change.
Sadly though, two years later, the oil still lingers in the Gulf, and scientists are finding impacts on dolphins, corals, and zooplankton. But when it comes to prevention there has been little change. Congress has failed to pass a single law to improve drilling safety or spill response. Oceana has shown that new regulations barely scratch the surface to improve drilling safety. And rather than weaning us off of oil, our government is selling new leases and drilling is back to pre-disaster levels.
If we continue down this well-worn path, it’s just a matter of time until the same dog bites us again. It’s not a matter of “if” there will be another major oil spill, but “when.” Drilling advocates continue to use increasing gas prices to fool Americans into believing that we need more drilling, but economists and commentators from both sides of the aisle agree that more drilling won’t lower gas bills.
Two years ago, we lost. Our effort to prevent a major spill had failed. Now, the only way we can keep from losing again is to unite behind a call for an energy plan that weans us off of oil and builds a clean energy future. Clean energy will create jobs, provide a perpetual energy source and it will not spill, and with that approach, we can’t lose.