This Date in UCSF History: The Oil Spill

Monday, May 25, 2020

Originally published in Synapse on June 3, 2010. Top Hat, Junk Shot, Top Kill - the phrases seem like they are from a Hollywood pitch meeting for an action-adventure movie starring Tom Cruise, but the grim reality is that they all describe failed strategies to contain the worst environmental disaster the United States has ever suffered.

Two things are clear: the scope of the damage will not be known for many years, if ever, and the short term political consequences are likely to hurt President Obama’s popularity, but will have considerably less impact on the midyear Congressional races.

To put the scale of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in perspective, consider that the last large U.S. drilling accident, the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, released “only” an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil over ten days in relatively shallow water.

The effects of this accident were fouled beaches, approximately 10,000 dead birds, and generation of the impetus for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Proving that Richard Nixon could be a liberal by the political standards of today, he stated at the time, “What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and of the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future.”

Forty-one years later, only three weeks before the blowout, Governor Schwarzenegger (in concert with a similar announcement from the Obama administration) announced a proposal to resume offshore drilling in California.

He quickly backed away as the magnitude of the Gulf incident became apparent. It will be decades before the fallout from the Deepwater spill dissipates enough for any future governor to suggest new oil platforms off the California coast.

Every five days, an amount of oil equal to the Santa Barbara spill is released into the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition, about twice that much natural gas is escaping from the rupture with fewer immediate consequences, but with the same long-term uncertainty as to its impact.

Already, at least 1,000,000 barrels of oil have likely been released. It is possible that the additional oil that will escape before repair efforts succeed will be equal or greater than this amount.

Besides the unknown impact of over 2,000,000 barrels of oil being released into the Gulf (over 80,000,000 gallons), there is the 900,000 gallons of toxic dispersant that was dumped in the water (to break up the oil droplets and theoretically make them more able to be broken down more quickly by natural processes).

The economic and environmental losses associated with this volume of deadly poisons released into the habitat are literally greater than we can imagine. Political effects are easier to estimate and identify.

One outcome is that, as Obama has already announced, expansion of offshore drilling is temporarily on hold (probably permanently).

Another is that “drill, baby, drill” is likely to haunt those who were enthusiastically chanting it and political operatives are almost certainly searching filings for any hint of money given by BP or any oil company to their opponents.

No matter how outraged, empathic, or regretful Obama feels, his popularity will take a hit simply because he is the one deemed responsible at the moment (‘The buck stops here.”) and because there will be a concerted effort by Republicans to pin blame on him - a process already started by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

For politicians other than Obama, the effects will likely be balanced with Republicans taking a hit for being closer to the oil and gas industry and Democrats being hurt collaterally by Obama’s fall in popularity and any strengthened anti-incumbent sentiment (although that might have peaked already).

The best that can be hoped for is a real discussion regarding the costs of our current energy practices and policy. Hopefully this discussion will take place along with the inevitable Congressional investigations (and possible criminal indictments).

One offshore project that was fortuitously approved recently is the Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts which will generate hundreds of megawatts of clean, renewable energy for Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.

It can be expected that more projects such as this one as well as encouragement of more research into renewable energy will pass Congress.

In addition, there may be the opportunity for the moribund carbon legislation to move through the Senate, or even some kind of tax on oil, or at least offshore oil.

Obama has established a national commission stating, “I want to know what worked and what didn’t work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down.”

This may be what he feels is necessary to handle the short-term political fallout, but unless the United States addresses its long-term addiction to oil, this will not be the last disaster associated with our hydrocarbon habit.