Asking For Trouble

Did Obama Forget the BP Oil Spill?

The administration swore it would profit from the mistakes of the 2010 Gulf oil spill. The decision to allow drilling in the Atlantic makes you wonder if it learned anything at all.

01.29.15 10:45 AM ET

After a brief flurry of positive news for environmentalists out of the Obama White House—from a deal with China on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to a plan to restrict oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness—a news report this week felt like something of a slap in the face: The administration plans to allow offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean from Virginia to Georgia, beginning two years from now.

The move satisfies a long-held desire by many GOP members of Congress, who’d been pushing hard for this big expansion as President Obama’s Interior Department works on a five-year offshore drilling permitting plan that will run from 2017 through 2022. And there had been warning signs that the president would give them what they sought; in July, the administration signed off on oil companies using 250-decibel seismic guns to map the Continental Shelf from Delaware to Florida—despite warnings that the blasts will deafen and even kill marine mammals, interfering with their communications and breeding.

As a native son of Louisiana, I’m deeply troubled by Obama’s move. I’ve been an environmental lawyer along the Gulf Coast for a quarter-century. For the last four years, most of my work has been representing fishing boat captains or small business owners whose lives have been turned upside down by the worst offshore drilling disaster in U.S. history: the 5 million barrels of oil that spewed forth from BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout. I’ve listened to the clean-up workers coping with headaches, nausea, and other ailments from breathing in crude oil or the toxic dispersant used to make the oil “disappear” from the surface of the Gulf. I honestly don’t think America can handle another drilling disaster of the BP magnitude.

So how can we move forward on Atlantic drilling when the government has not followed through on its promises to learn from the mistakes that caused the Gulf oil disaster? In 2011, the National Oil Spill Commission—created in response to the BP fiasco—recommended a series of measures that would be funded through the industry’s lease payments and would place a much greater emphasis on safety. For example, it called for a new “Safety Institute” that would study and implement ways to prevent future accidents. Remarkably, none of the commission’s proposals have been funded or implemented. Indeed, there has been no new federal legislation to improve offshore drilling standards since the calamity along the Gulf Coast … none!

Meanwhile, other post-Deepwater Horizon measures have failed to instill confidence. The regulatory Minerals Management Service, which was sharply criticized after the BP spill as too close to industry, was split up, with plans for better training for the regulators, and a new outlook. But just this fall, investigative reporter David Hammer of WWL-TV in New Orleans found that a new training center promised for the Gulf has never even gotten off the ground. Instead, federal officials have been zealous in their efforts to expand drilling in the Gulf, even as crude from the 2010 spill still washes ashore. Just this summer, the Interior Department put another 21 million acres in the western Gulf up for lease, as part of what Obama calls his “all of the above” energy policy.

By opening up the Atlantic off the southern U.S. in 2017, the White House has created a brand new playing field. It is one that holds the potential of great reward for Big Oil and Gas—officials estimate the new drilling zone contains at least 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and possibly much more—and equally great risk for the environment. The hundreds of thousands of people who make their living from the motels, seafood shacks, and T-shirt shops in places such as the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach, and Hilton Head will now get to lose sleep worrying about what happened to the tourism industry in the Gulf in 2010.

In addition to the seismic assault on wildlife, a five-year push to massively expand oil exploration and production across the Outer Continental Shelf makes a mockery of Obama’s stated goal to reduce America’s carbon pollution. The fact that oil prices are so low now—although it may make Atlantic drilling less attractive in the short run—is also a potential boon to the energy giants in the long run, as they lock in long-term leases at lower prices.

But the downside of Atlantic drilling is simply too great. In 2008, Obama said he hoped his political ascension would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Instead, American oil production rose sharply, while prices at the pump have plunged—and this was all before a Republican Congress could make good on its promise to roll back basic environmental protections. In the coming weeks, environmentalists have been looking to the White House to make a stand against the GOP push for another high-risk, environmentally costly project—the Keystone XL pipeline—and their expected moves against the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to curb greenhouse gases. This self-inflicted blow to the future safety of the Atlantic Ocean is an unforced error that doesn’t make the other battles any easier.

Stuart H. Smith is a New Orleans environmental attorney and author of the new Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America.