One year ago Wednesday, BP's Macondo well exploded and spilled what ended up being approximately 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the worst spill ever in U.S. waters, far eclipsing the 53 million gallons spilled when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in 1989.
The federal government and industry have made strides in the past year in the wake of the disaster. But even as things change, they stay the same. Here’s a rundown of the biggest things that have -- and have not -- changed:
The biggest things that have changed:
1. The Interior Department
A month after oil started spilling into the Gulf, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rolled out the most aggressive overhaul of his department’s offshore oil and gas drilling management ever. He announced that the much-maligned Minerals Management Service would be split into three agencies to minimize the conflict of interest created when leasing, revenue collection, and drilling inspections were done under the same umbrella. Salazar hired Michael Bromwich in June to lead the reform efforts, which are expected to be complete by October 1. Interior has also implemented more rigorous drilling standards, enhanced environmental reviews, and more systematic workplace rules, among a series of other significant new regulations.
2. The industry
The oil and gas industry, led by the American Petroleum Institute, responded quickly to set up four task forces to examine deepwater drilling safety; API announced the first two on May 4. The industry has also seen other major reform efforts: the creation of the Marine Well Containment Company and the Helix Well Containment Group to prove industry’s ability to contain a spill in deep waters; new regulations crafted by oil executives in cooperation with the Interior department; efforts by API to enhance safety and drilling standards for U.S. companies and others around the world; and the creation of an industry-created drilling safety institute, recommended by President Obama’s spill commission, which will be set up this year.
3. The industry's critics
After the death of climate legislation, the oil spill has rallied congressional Democrats like House Natural Resources ranking member Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to pounce on Big Oil and urge the country to move to clean sources of energy. This renewed criticism was seen among environmental groups as well.
Obama’s spill commission determined that systemic failures throughout the industry caused the spill. But ultimately, the buck stops with BP, whose CEO at the time of the spill, Tony Hayward, made a series of public relations missteps that led to his resignation shortly after the well was capped in late July. He was replaced by Robert Dudley, whose first speech to fellow industry executives was a somber one. “The first thing I want to say is that I am sorry for what happened last year,” Dudley said at the Cambridge Energy Research Associates conference last month in Houston. He then laid out a series of major changes he is leading within BP.
What has not changed:
1. The Interior Department
Salazar and Bromwich have done a lot, but even they admit they have not done enough. And that’s largely because of lack of money. Last week Obama signed into law a budget bill that gives Bromwich’s new agency $47 million, less than half of the $100 million Obama requested last year. “The 2011 funding will preserve our most essential functions for the remainder of the year as the president promised,” Bromwich said Tuesday. “And it will allow us to make significant incremental progress. But it won’t allow us to improve operations for the future to the extent -- and in the ways -- that we think are desirable and necessary.” Interior also hasn’t implemented some of the biggest recommendations from Obama’s spill commission, such as creating an independent safety institute within the agency -- mainly because that requires congressional approval, which has not been forthcoming.
Fueled by high gasoline prices, House Republicans are quickly moving a trio of bills through the lower chamber that would reverse many of Obama’s oil and gas policies since the BP spill and expedite the permitting process. The Senate is unlikely to pass any of them. But it also probably won’t address any of the big concerns lingering since the spill, namely raising the oil spill liability cap, which everyone agrees is too low at $75 million. Congress also won’t have a big appetite to give much more funding to Bromwich in the FY2012 budget negotiations. Obama asked for about $350 million for the overhaul efforts and to hire more inspectors. High gasoline prices will likely trump every other energy-related concern for American voters -- and thus for lawmakers.
3. Oil industry politics
As much as API has done to lead on the regulatory and safety front, it has also launched a war against the administration and congressional Democrats. The industry has fought efforts to eliminate tax breaks for oil and gas companies. It has criticized the administration’s long-term oil and gas policies, including leasing plans in the Outer Continental Shelf and off Alaska’s coast. Finally, it has refused to support new fees on the industry as a way to pay for new reforms and new inspectors.
4. Obama’s views
The president’s position on offshore oil and gas drilling is close to where it was before the spill. Immediately after the spill, in his first Oval Office address as president, Obama said the disaster provided tragic evidence that the country needs to wean itself off oil by passing comprehensive climate legislation. He implemented an offshore drilling moratorium and reversed plans to expand leasing opportunities. But, with a GOP-controlled House and high gasoline prices, Obama may have to embrace the idea of expanded drilling. He has called on companies to use leases they already have to drill for more oil while reminding Americans about the spill (a maneuver many experts say doesn’t make policy sense). “We are encouraging offshore exploration and production,” Obama said in early March. “We’re just doing it responsibly."
The jury is out:
1. The Gulf’s environment and wildlife
“There’s virtually no information on the ecological impact at this point,” said Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said the most accurate, comprehensive account of the spill’s environmental impact is legally tied up and won’t be released until the legal challenges related to the ecological impacts are either settled or go to court, which could take years. Scientists can still dissect the spill’s impact in other ways; Suatoni said that the reproductive ability (or lack thereof) of Gulf wildlife like shrimp could be a sign of the spill’s detrimental impact. Some scientists have also linked the recent discovery of oiled, dead dolphins to the spill, but Suatoni said that much information about those findings is also being kept confidential.
This article appears in the April 20, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.