Lessons From the BP Oil Spill: A Reading List

Democrats are asking a government watchdog to investigate how prepared the U.S. would be for another major oil spill.
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Oil floats ashore at the Grand Isle East State Park on May 27th, 2010, on Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Oil floats ashore at the Grand Isle East State Park on May 27th, 2010, on Grand Isle, Louisiana.

As the Trump administration rolls back offshore drilling regulations intended to protect workers and the environment, House democrats are calling for an investigation into how prepared the United States is to face another massive oil spill like BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Three leading members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce—Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Diana DeGette of Colorado, and Paul Tonko of New York—sent a letter on Monday to the Government Accountability Office requesting an investigation into the federal government's planned response to future oil spills.

One of the focal points of the letter is the continued use of the chemical dispersants that were used in the clean-up of the BP spill. Chemical dispersants break oil down into smaller droplets. The idea is that breaking down thick oil slicks from the surface of the water and diluting them into tiny droplets will be safer for the environment than just leaving the oil as is after a spill. But their use is controversial. The lawmakers' letter asks the government watchdog to explore what the federal government knows about the residual effects of the use of dispersants on the environment and human health.

The BP spill was the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history and led to the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants. In the nine years since the spill occurred, Pacific Standard and our publishing partners have explored questions about the impact of the spill and its clean-up.

1. Did the Government Change Anything After the BP Spill?

Five years after the spill, Brian Palmer looked at what recommended changes had gone into effect to prevent it from happening again. But he found most proposed regulations had stalled in Congress:

Recognizing the chaos that followed the initial explosion, the president's panel suggested a mandatory fund for oil spill response research. It wanted money for the fund to be allocated outside the ordinary appropriations process, so it couldn't be re-allocated as memories of the spill faded. Congress' memory has apparently faded. We're still waiting for it to act on that recommendation, and it now looks extremely unlikely.

2. Doesn't the Government Already Know How to Clean Up Oil Spills?

Apparently not, as Melinda Burns pointed out shortly after the BP spill:

As the head of NOAA's Hazardous Materials Response Team, which he founded in 1976, [John] Robinson oversaw about 100 oil spill clean-ups. "I can't think of any good example where a clean-up has been anything other than useless. It causes more damage than not doing anything at all. Once the genie gets out of the bottle, there's no getting it back in. That seems to be proving itself once more in New Orleans."

3. How Bad Was the BP Spill for the Environment?

We're still finding out, and it could be decades before we know, as Lauren Zanolli reported in 2017 in a story about deep-sea corals recovering from the spill:

"It's going to take a minimum of 50 years, and it could be as long as hundreds of years, to get back to the size of the corals that we lost," said Erik Cordes, a deep-sea ecologist at Temple University who has been studying the Gulf of Mexico since five million barrels of oil gushed into its waters more than seven years ago. Scientists estimate 15 to 30 percent of the spill eventually settled on the bottom.

But Jason Bittel wrote that research had already found evidence of the spill's ongoing harm to a number of other species:

For instance, 41 percent of the dolphins exposed to heavy oil concentrations showed signs of inflammation, 22 percent had hypoglycemia and altered iron metabolism, and 19 percent had diseases of the liver and biliary tract.

4. What About the Chemicals Used in the Clean-Up?

Most clean-up methods are chemical. In addition to the chemical dispersants that break oil slicks up to dilute them, there are chemical herders which clump the oil together so it can be burned. Some researchers are exploring natural alternatives to these chemical products. In 2015, Kate Wheeling wrote about a plant-based herder that could replace traditional silicone herders:

Unlike traditional silicone herders, they are broken down by water in just one month. "Once [the herder] does the job, then it goes away," says George John, a professor of chemistry at the City College of New York, and principle author on the study.

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