6 years after BP oil spill, U.S. announces new regulations, plans to lease more drilling areas

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform on fire. File April 21, 2010. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr)

Yesterday marked the six year anniversary of the day BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, triggering the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The blast leaked more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico which, today, still covers 10 percent of the Gulf’s sea floor.

This week, the federal government has both released new regulations aimed at preventing future blowouts and, somewhat ironically, also began plans to lease out more areas of the Gulf for offshore drilling over the next five years.

According to Think Progress, the government’s new regulations set requirements for the “design, manufacture, repair, and maintenance” of blowout preventers – the piece of safety equipment that is supposed to seal the oil well during an emergency based on the most current industry standards. They also established a more rigorous certification process for these blowout preventers, and require real-time monitoring for high-temperature and high-pressure drilling.

Environmental groups were generally supportive of the new rules. A new report by Oceana called them “a significant improvement,” but stressed the importance that President Barack Obama take the Atlantic, Arctic and ultra-deepwater regions off the table for drilling, along with regions of the ocean with sensitive ecosystems. The Obama administration removed the Atlantic from its five-year energy development plan earlier this year, explained Think Progress; the decision was a victory for environmentalists and climate advocates, who are now demanding the government spare the Gulf and Arctic from new leases as well.

“We know that opening new areas to offshore drilling poses unacceptable risks,” Ingrid Biedron, marine scientist at Oceana, said in a statement. “Instead of expanding our dependence on risky offshore drilling, we should rapidly develop clean energy solutions like offshore wind.”

Meanwhile, federal regulators held a public forum in New Orleans on Monday, on a draft environmental analysis of the Obama administration’s five-year plan to issue 10 new offshore fossil fuel leases in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic.

The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) details the potential environmental impacts of its proposal, and attempts to predict how another massive oil spill like the one in 2010 would harm Gulf and Arctic environments. But the report only considers climate-warming emissions created by offshore oil drilling, ignoring the effects the oil would have once taken to land and burned as fuel.

The public forum garnered so much public interest that the meeting originally had to be rescheduled (as well as forums in Washington and Houston). In New Orleans, Gulf Coast residents and their environmental allies rallied against the federal plans, and called for a cancellation of the proposed leases as well as new investments and job creation in renewable energy and environmental restoration.

“We’ve spent years beseeching the oil industry. Please stop polluting, please reduce your accidents, please install air monitors so that mothers can know if children are being poisoned. The industry has never listened and now we see another way. We are inspired by the victory against drilling on the Atlantic Coast.  So we’re telling Big Oil to take their rigs and go home,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, in a statement.

In response, industry supporters said their demands to end new drilling are shortsighted. Oil and gas supports thousands of jobs and small businesses in Louisiana and is the bedrock for products many Americans have grown used to, Lori LeBlanc, director of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association’s offshore committee, told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune .

A decision on whether to move forward with the proposed leasing program, alter it, or scratch the EIS altogether will come in early 2017.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com