Important Lessons From The Gulf Oil Spill

Published September 13, 2010

The worst oil spill in a generation is now largely behind us, finally providing an opportunity to assess the environmental damage, evaluate what went wrong, and formulate better plans to ensure this type of accident never happens again.

The first lesson we learned from the Gulf oil spill is that almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. BP and its contractors repeatedly ignored industry-standard safety practices that would have prevented the Deepwater Horizon explosion from happening. BP had no spill containment plan to activate when the explosion took place. The federal government had a spill containment plan but failed for several days to implement it. And when the feds finally did begin to implement their plan, they implemented it only partially and, in many particulars, too late to make much of a difference.

It is difficult to imagine an offshore drilling accident where more things could go wrong.

The second and most important lesson we learned is the extent of the environmental damage when a worst-case scenario occurs. The oil gushed for 85 days, spilling 60,000 barrels per day into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the spill killed 4,080 birds, 525 sea turtles, 72 marine mammals, and 1 reptile.

These deaths are tragic, but they pale in comparison to the death toll that would occur if we followed calls to switch to a renewable energy economy. Wind power, for example, provides less than 2 percent of the nation’s electricity, yet the American Bird Conservancy estimates wind turbines kill between 75,000 and 275,000 birds each year. Expanding wind power to, say, 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, as renewable power proponents advocate, would likely kill between two million and eight million birds each and every year.

A third lesson is that well-intentioned rules can have powerful negative consequences. Federal policy, implemented at the behest of environmental activist groups, has been to discourage or prohibit oil and natural gas production in shallow water, instead directing it to deeper water farther from shore. When the Gulf oil spill first began, the depth of the water and the wellhead’s location so far from shore prevented it from being capped quickly. Had the same incident occurred in shallower water, the wellhead could have been capped much sooner, the oil could have been more effectively contained, and less oil would have been released into the Gulf.

Similarly, a federal policy capping economic damages at $75 million undoubtedly encouraged BP to be lax about formulating spill response plans. The startling revelation that BP had no spill containment plan should have been foreseeable, given that the federal government removed the economic incentive for BP to formulate and test such a plan.

Finally, we learned that for all of BP’s greener-than-thou public relations rhetoric during the past decade, the company was selectively defining what it meant to be green. Because BP had invested heavily in natural gas, wind power, and solar power, it stood to gain a competitive market advantage if governments restricted carbon dioxide emissions and thereby directed money to wind, solar, and natural gas production. BP touted itself as a green company and lobbied heavily for economically self-serving carbon dioxide restrictions, but for environmental matters of a much more immediate and pressing concern, BP cut corners and ignored sound environmental stewardship when it had an economic incentive to do so.

Lesson learned: When a company or industry lobbies for seemingly altruistic legislation, keep a close eye on your wallet.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute.