TIME Environment

Questions Remain Over U.S. Preparedness for the Next Oil Spill

Eleven People Missing After Explosion At Offshore Drilling Rig
U.S. Coast Guard Fire boats battle a fire at the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon.

Despite more frequent drilling, environmental activists say not enough has changed in the way the government oversees deepwater drilling.

In the midst of 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, President Barack Obama’s administration declared a six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. The spill was one of the country’s most devastating environmental disasters, and the freeze was intended to give the federal government time to assess what safety measures it had in place. But the moratorium passed, and drilling quickly resumed.

Now, five years later, offshore oil drilling is more frequent and is done to even greater depth. Since the BP spill, the federal government has approved more than 20 ultra-deepwater drilling expeditions, according to the Associated Press. Environmental activists say not enough has changed in the way the federal government oversees the deepwater drilling.

“The BP spill happened five years ago, but the next offshore oil disaster is still just one mistake away because the oil companies have fought putting the strongest possible protections on the books,” said Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, in a statement.

Since 2010, the federal government has addressed the causes of the spill by heightening standards for the design and casing of deep-sea oil wells and nearly doubling the number of inspectors. Earlier this month, the Obama administration proposed increasing regulation of the blowout preventer, the last line of defense in preventing a spill. The blowout preventer failed in the Deepwater Horizon accident, one of the many factors

“A lot has occurred to make offshore drilling safer,” said Eileen P. Angelico, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), an agency created to monitor offshore drilling after the BP spill. “Government oversight of drilling has been strengthened…and there has been a significant increase in the number of offshore inspectors and technical experts.”

But environmental activists say the changes aren’t enough. The number of offshore incidents including fires, oil spills and explosions, among other things, has remained high over the past five years, according to data from the BSEE. There were nearly 2,800 incidents and 11 deaths between 2011 and 2014. There were 3,200 incidents and 32 deaths in the previous four-year period. More importantly, environmental activists say, many spills go unreported.

“The industry has destroyed hundreds of square miles of sensitive wetlands, while daily, and often unreported, leaks and spills pose serious threats to our fisheries, wildlife and natural habitat,” said Jonathan Henderson, who monitors field operations at Gulf Restoration Network, in a statement.

At the same time, oil companies have launched operations drilling at depths far greater than the 13,000 feet below sea level where the 2010 spill occurred, according to the Associated Press. Stopping a spill in the deeper and more complex wells would be far more difficult than it was to stop the BP spill—which eventually spewed an estimated 176 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

But even if tougher regulations were able to prevent all potential oil spills, many environmental activists—and some officials in the federal government—argue that offshore drilling still needs to end. Drilling only deepens reliance on the fossil fuels that cause climate change, experts say. Indeed, Obama used the Deepwater Horizon debacle in 2010 as an opportunity to advocate for the “transition to clean energy.”

“There are costs associated with this transition,” said Obama at the time. “We can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy—because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.”

Despite the environmentally friendly gesture, environmental activists say the president’s energy policy leaves much to be desired. The White House is pushing to open new areas to offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Atlantic and Arctic waters need to be taken completely off the table to oil and gas drilling,” said Natural Resources Defense Council Executive Director Peter Lehner in a statement at the time. “All offshore drilling is risky, but the worst thing we could do right now is open up new, never-spoiled, or long-closed areas to the risks this industry poses.”

TIME Environment

5 Years on, Empty Graves, Full Hearts for Gulf Survivors

This undated photo provided by Shelley Anderson shows her with her husband, Jason, and their daughter, Lacy.
AP This undated photo provided by Shelley Anderson shows her with her husband Jason and their daughter Lacy

(JONESVILLE, La.) — Courtney Kemp was getting dressed for work when husband Wyatt walked in and sat down. He didn’t speak, but she could tell something was weighing on him.

She knew that things hadn’t been going well on the job, but Wyatt never wanted to trouble her with details. They’d talked often about the risks of working on an oil rig 41 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico; Wyatt had always insisted that the most dangerous part was the helicopter ride to the Deepwater Horizon. In just a few days, the 27-year-old derrickhand would be leaving for his next three-week hitch.

Courtney asked what was wrong.

“I just want you to know that if something happened to me … I don’t want you to be by yourself,” he told her. “And I don’t want the girls to grow up without somebody to be their father.”

“If something did, I wouldn’t be able to get over it,” she insisted. “I don’t know how I would go on.”

Courtney began to cry, and Wyatt pulled her into a tight embrace.

“It’s all going to be OK,” he assured her.

In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana, the Gulf has shown remarkable resilience. So, too, have the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in the disaster.

But the shockwaves of April 20, 2010, continue to send out ripples across the gulf of time.

Children too young to have any real memories of their fathers ask to hear stories and make pilgrimages to empty graves. The family of one victim recently celebrated the birth of his first grandchild; the mother of another is still coming to grips with the bitter fact that her youngest son will never give her grandkids.

These survivors are doing their best to balance the memory of the men they loved and the reality that each of their own lives is an ongoing journey.

Consider the road traveled by a young widow named Courtney.

___

By the spring of 2010, Courtney and Wyatt had been together nearly half their lives.

Shortly after high school graduation, they married and moved away. But after just a couple of years, they were drawn back to Jonesville, and to their comfortable “home” church.

Wyatt found a job as a roustabout on a land-based oil rig, then made the jump to the Deepwater Horizon, the “pride of the Transocean fleet.” They built a home amid the ironing board-flat pastures and croplands outside town, and had two daughters — Kaylee and Maddison.

Church remained a constant in their lives.

The Sunday before he left for his last hitch on the rig, Wyatt answered the pastor’s invitation to approach the altar. When Courtney asked if everything was OK, he replied simply: “Everyone needs prayer at some time or another.”

He’d had just a few weeks with newborn Maddison before it was time to return to the Deepwater Horizon.

Around noon on April 20, Wyatt called from the Deepwater’s tower. It had been a rough hitch, and he was ready to come home.

“I’ll see y’all tomorrow,” he said.

At 4:30 the next morning, Courtney was jolted awake by the telephone. A woman from Transocean said there had been an accident.

The couple’s pastor was there when Courtney learned that Wyatt was dead. He asked if she remembered the altar call.

“Wyatt told me that he wanted to be so close to God that he couldn’t get any closer,” he said.

___

Ten days after the explosion, Wyatt’s memorial was held at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. Roughneck Dustin Robertson was among those who came to pay their respects.

The day of the accident, Robertson was working on BP’s Thunder Horse platform, about 30 miles from the Deepwater. He watched helplessly as the flames shooting from the stricken rig lit up the horizon.

At the church, Robertson listened as family and friends eulogized the man who read the Bible to his girls and would sing Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” as he laced up his work boots. Sitting there, Robertson knew that it could easily be his wife and daughters crying in that front pew.

As the investigations and lawsuits dragged on, Wyatt’s insistence that she remarry kept echoing in Courtney’s mind. She asked God to “send me the right guy.”

Following the disaster, Robertson had decided to start a Bible study on his rig. He asked Kemp’s widow if she would share his “testimony.”

In March 2011, Robertson invited her to lunch so he could show her how he’d worked Wyatt’s story into his lesson plan.

When they parted, Robertson — who was separated from his wife — asked if he could call Courtney from time to time; she said yes. He called later that afternoon and asked if he could take her out on a date that Saturday.

They drove all over Jonesville and down the road to Jena, Robertson’s hometown, forgetting even to stop to eat.

“We talked for hours,” she says. “And it was easy.”

Three months later, Courtney told her father she thought “Dusti” was “the one.”

There was just one thing: If they were going to be together, Robertson would have to leave the oilfield.

___

The couple were married on April 14, 2012. Robertson is now youth minister at the church where he first saw Courtney.

They live in the spacious home Courtney and Wyatt built. In November, Corbin Grace Robertson joined her older sisters, Kaylee, 8, and Maddison, 5.

Wyatt is still very present. Photos of him with the girls sit on shelves and in bookcases. A miniature of a memorial statue erected at Transocean’s Houston headquarters stands on the family room mantel. A bronzed hard hat with Wyatt’s name on the brim sits in a glass box beside the dining room table.

Kaylee and Maddison call Robertson “Daddy.” Wyatt is simply “daddy in heaven.”

TIME Environment

Judge Places Most Blame on BP for 2010 Oil Spill

Deepwater Horizon site
Carrie Vonderhaar—Ocean Futures Society/Getty Images Deepwater Horizon site

British energy giant's conduct called "reckless"

A New Orleans judge ruled on Thursday that British energy giant BP’s gross negligence led to the largest offshore oil spill in American history.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said BP was mostly to blame for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster, which killed 11 people and spewed oil into the water for 87 days.

Barbier attributed 67% of the fault to BP, 30% to Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, and 3% to Halliburton, the cement contractor.

“BP’s conduct was reckless,” Barbier wrote in the decision, according to Bloomberg. “Transocean’s conduct was negligent. Halliburton’s conduct was negligent.”

Barbier oversaw a trial last year to distribute fault for the spill. BP could face up to $18 billion in fines, Bloomberg reports, though appeals will likely delay if and when any penalties are settled. The company pleaded guilty in 2012 to 14 federal counts and agreed to pay $4 billion to end the criminal case.

BP said in a statement it would appeal the decision. Its shares were down nearly 6% at 12:12 p.m. ET on Thursday.

TIME Companies

Halliburton to Pay $1.1 Billion Over Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Flags flying at a Halliburton facility in Williston, North Dakota on Aug. 20, 2013.
Karen Blieber—AFP/Getty Images Flags flying at a Halliburton facility in Williston, North Dakota on Aug. 20, 2013.

The deal will pay off damage claims from property holders and commercial fisheries affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster

Halliburton has reached a $1.1 billion settlement deal with plaintiffs claiming damages resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the Houston-based energy company announced on Tuesday.

The company will pay $1.1 billion into a trust in three installments, which will be used to pay off damage claims from property holders and commercial fisheries along the gulf coast.

The deal removes a measure of uncertainty that has lingered over the company’s legal reserves over the past four years. Halliburton has set aside a $1.3 billion litigation fund for costs related to the spill. While the settlement resolves claims from individual plaintiffs, Halliburton still faces lawsuits from several coastal states.

Halliburton has traded blame with British Petroleum (BP) over the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which unleashed nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf over several weeks in 2010, one of the largest offshore oil spills in U.S. history.

BP, the owner of the well, blamed Halliburton for faulty construction work while Halliburton said BP’s faulty management was responsible. Both companies, along with the owner of the rig, Transocean Ltd., have paid out billions in settlement deals.

TIME

Mark Wahlberg Could Be Starring in a Movie About the BP Oil Spill

Celebrity Sightings In Boston - August 08, 2014
Stickman/Bauer-Griffin—GC Images Mark Wahlberg is seen on the set of 'Ted 2' on August 08, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.

He would play the part a manager who rescues his crew members

Mark Wahlberg may be offered a role in a forthcoming movie based off of the 2010 BP oil spill. Deepwater Horizon will be directed by J.C. Chandor for Liongate’s Summit Entertainment, industry news site Deadline Hollywood reports.

The Hollywood Reporter also says that Wahlberg is in talks with Lionsgate, and says the parties have not begun negotiating a deal.

The movie, which will be a dramatization of a New York Times article entitled Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hour, details the 48-hours leading up to and shortly after the disaster, Deadline Hollywood reports.

The BP oil rig exploded off Louisiana’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and injuring 16 others, in what is considered the worst marine oil spill in history.

Wahlberg, who recently played in Lorenzo di Bonaventura’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, would star as a manager who tries to rescue his crew after the rig explosion. The film will be produced by di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian and is set to begin production by the summer of 2015.

TIME Environment

A BP Employee Convicted of Deleting Deepwater Texts Gets a New Trial

Kurt Mix
Gerald Herbert—AP Kurt Mix, left, leaves Federal Court with an unidentified member of his defense team in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2013.

A judge rules that the original verdict was compromised by remarks overheard by the jury forewoman

A U.S. District Judge has thrown out the original verdict, and ordered a new trial, in the case of a BP employee convicted of deleting text messages to obstruct an investigation into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Engineer Kurt Mix, 52, of Katy, Texas, was convicted of obstruction of justice for, prosecutors said, deleting text messages between a supervisor and a contractor with the aim of thwarting a grand jury investigation into the disaster. But Judge Stanwood Duval tossed out that verdict, ruling that it had been compromised by remarks the jury forewoman overheard outside the jury room.

Mix denies he was attempting to conceal evidence. He is one of four BP employees charged in connection with the 2010 spill.

[WDSU]

TIME justice

BP Takes Gulf Oil Spill Damages Appeal to Supreme Court

Oil Spill In The Gulf
DigitalGlobe/Getty Images In this satellite image, vessels are seen at the site of the oil spill on June 15, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexio.

After an appeals court rejected the company’s request for a rehearing

The oil company BP said Wednesday it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal of a ruling by a lower court concerning damage payments to businesses affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company argues the lower court ruling will force it to pay for economic damages to business without those businesses having to prove their losses resulted from the spill.

“No company would agree to pay for losses that it did not cause, and BP certainly did not when it entered into this settlement,” the company said in a statement. “BP will continue to fight to return the settlement to its original, explicit, and lawful purpose – the compensation of claimants who suffered actual losses due to the spill.”

On Monday, in an 8-5 decision the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans declined to hear BP’s appeal of a March ruling on how payments would be made in the estimated $9.2 billion settlement the company reached with parties representing affected businesses.

TIME deepwater horizon

The BP Oil Spill May Have Caused Heart Defects in Tuna and Amberjack

DigitalGlobe / Getty Images This DigitalGlobe satellite image depicts an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the sinking of Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible rig whose purpose was to drill oil wells in extremely deep water.

There is a "reduced survival" rate for these economically important fish species, says the co-author of new study

A damning new study says that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could have led to potentially lethal heart defects in yellowfin amberjack, yellowfin tuna and bluefin tuna — three economically important fish species.

To conduct the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, scientists recreated the contaminated sea environment with samples from the BP oil spill, and introduced fish larvae to it. They found that the fish exhibited a number of heart defects, which could lead either to death or a slower swimming pace.

“So they are either going to get eaten or they won’t be able to eat enough,” says co-author John Incardona, research toxicologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “That leads to reduced survival.”

The study comes three months after scientists announced that Louisiana dolphins face lung disease and low birthrates following the spillage of more than 636 million liters of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Peter Hodson, a fish toxicologist unconnected to the recent study, told The Verge that it was a “tour de force” for researchers to manage to keep the larvae alive long enough to study the oil’s effects. However, a BP spokesperson said that “the paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact.”

The bluefin tuna population in the Gulf of Mexico is already struggling from overfishing and water pollution, and faces virtual extinction.

[Verge]

TIME energy

The Afterlife of Oil Spills

Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup
Chris Wilkins—AFP/Getty Images Nearly 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists are still reckoning with the ecological cost

On a shelf at my home, I have a small jar that contains a smear of crude oil. I dug it up on the shore of a small island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in May of 2009, on a reporting trip for a story about the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That crude oil is more than 25 years old now, and its existence is a reminder of just how long lived the effects of a major oil accident can be. Years after the spill has been stopped, after the press has gone home, the crude oil released into a river or a sea will affect the biology of almost anything it touches—just as it continues to weigh on the people who live and work in the area fouled by crude.

That’s worth remembering as we observe the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill today. On Mar. 25, 1989, a tanker captained by Joseph Hazelwood ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef, spilling nearly 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude oil into Alaska’s near-pristine Prince William Sound. The oil spread out to more than 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline, choking bird and sea life, and permanently damaging the region’s ecology. Even now, you can still find some of that oil on remote beaches in the Sound, preserved by the cold. As of 2010, just 12 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services affected by the spill were considered fully recovered or very likely recovered. The once-prosperous Pacific herring fishery still remains closed after the population of the fish crashed in the years following the spill. While much of the Sound has rebounded, it will never be the same—even a quarter century later.

The Exxon Valdez disaster was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history—until April 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was destroyed in a well blowout, leading to an oil gusher that lasted 87 days and resulted in more than 200 million gallons (757 million liters) of crude flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. While much of the oil was either cleaned up in a response operation that cost billions of dollars or was broken down by bacteria in the warm Gulf waters, the ecological damage from the spill was major, and almost four yeas later, scientists are only beginning to gauge the cost to marine life.

Here’s one example: in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several universities assessed the impact of Deepwater Horizon oil on developing embryos of bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack, all commercially important fish species that spawn near the site of the accident. The research team exposed embryos taken from breeding facilities to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a toxic agent released by crude oil. In each tested species, PAH exposure—at levels the researchers said was realistic for the Gulf spill—was linked to abnormalities in heart function and defects in heart development. As the paper concluded:

Losses of early life stages were therefore likely for Gulf populations of tunas, amberjack, swordfish, billfish, and other large predators that spawned in oiled surface habitats.

The PNAS study isn’t the first to blame the BP oil spill for lingering problems with Gulf marine life; a study published earlier this month linked the spill to dwindling numbers of bottlenose dolphins Louisiana’s Barataria Ba. Nor will it be the last. But that hasn’t slowed the rush to keep drilling going in the Gulf of Mexico, a rush that BP has now been allowed to rejoin after initially being barred from participation in lease sales in the region. The British company won 24 out of 31 bids entered in an Interior Department offshore drilling lease sale held last week, paying more than $41 million for the right to explore oil and gas in the region. Altogether 1.7 million acres (.69 million hectares) off the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were opened up for new drilling. Despite evidence of the risks, nothing seems likely to stop operations in the Gulf.

As long as there is offshore drilling and marine transport of oil, the risks of accidents will exist. Just two days before the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, at least 168,000 gallons (636,000 liters) of oil spilled from a barge in Galveston Bay in Texas. The spill is blocking the bustling Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest seaways in the U.S., and threatens an environmentally sensitive bird sanctuary nearby. Given the small size of the spill, it won’t have the kind of major aftereffects seen in the Valdez and the BP dissters. But it’s one more reminder that as long as our economy remains so dependent on oil, there will always be the risk of another catastrophe that could linger on and on.

[Update: BP sent along a statement in response to the PNAS study—I’m including it below:

The paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil concentrations used in these lab experiments were rarely seen in the Gulf during or after the Deepwater Horizon accident. In addition, the authors themselves note that it is nearly impossible to determine the early life impact to these species. To overcome this challenge, it would take more information than what’s presented in this paper.

It’s worth noting that the researchers mention in the paper how difficult it is to sample live but fragile yolksac larvae of big pelagic species like the bluefin tuna in the wild, which is the embryos used in the study were collected from breeding stations on land, not the Gulf itself.]

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