What Have We Learned From 50 Years of Offshore Oil Disasters?

As oil spills have gotten bigger, Congress’ responses have gotten smaller

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Santa Barbara oil spill. The anniversary got me thinking about the three major oil spills in United States waters—Santa Barbara (1969), Exxon Valdez (1989) and Deepwater Horizon (2010).

The three spills evidence a clear and troubling pattern—a major offshore oil disaster occurs in the United States every two decades. Each spill is worse than the last, increasing from 3 million to 11 million to 210 million gallons spilled. And Congress’ response to the spills has diminished.

This alarming trend tells us that we can learn from our past and do better!

A major oil spill every 20 years

On January 28, 1969, a blowout occurred about six miles from the coast on an oil platform operated by Union Oil near Santa Barbara, California. Over the ensuing ten days, more than 3 million gallons of oil polluted the ocean waters, coastlines and island shores. The spill killed thousands of birds and marine mammals. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. history at the time.

Twenty years later, in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez­—a tanker carrying more than fifty million gallons of Arctic oil—hit Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Eventually, nearly 11 million gallons of oil spewed into the ocean, fouling beaches, birds and marine mammals.

Twenty-one years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, in April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank while drilling a deep-water exploration well in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people lost their lives in the tragedy, and more than 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf.

Congressional inaction

Unfortunately, as the spills have gotten worse, Congress’s response to them has diminished. The Santa Barbara spill led to some of the bedrock environmental laws in the U.S. and in California. For example, public outrage after the spill was a factor in the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act—often called the “Magna Carta” of federal environmental laws. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which, among other things, mandated double-hulled tankers and made parties responsible for oil spills strictly liable for the costs of removing the oil and remediating the damage caused.

After the Deepwater Horizon disaster—the most recent and largest of the three major spills—Congress did nothing to address the series of deficiencies exposed by that accident in the regime governing offshore oil and gas operations. The lack of congressional response certainly was not because updates and changes weren’t needed. The disaster prompted President Obama to create the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which identified a series of significant statutory changes that could help prevent a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon in the future, including improving preparedness and response. Congress debated bills that would have taken steps like raising the cap on corporate liability and reforming insufficient reviews of spill response plans. Ultimately, Congress did not pass any of that legislation.

Under President Obama, the Department of the Interior, the agency charged with overseeing offshore oil and gas operations, did take some steps to improve preparedness and response. President Trump’s Department of the Interior, however, has already taken steps to roll back some of these important new protections and is considering additional changes.

The expansion of oil and gas leasing

At the same time, it is rolling back preparedness and response rules, the Trump administration is considering a risky and unnecessary expansion of offshore oil and gas leasing. President Trump’s direction to review existing plans and rules resulted in the release of a 2019–2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program (DPP). The DPP (which included leases sales in virtually every ocean area in the U.S.) has drawn substantial opposition from many coastal communities and governors. And, while it’s unlikely that leasing will take place in all of those areas, the enormous scope of the Trump administration’s proposal raised serious questions about the government’s capacity to properly plan and evaluate impacts on such a scale. And once again, it prompted calls to amend the laws that govern offshore oil and gas activities.

Allowing oil and gas leasing in remote, risky places is dangerous and short-sighted. Rather than rushing ahead, we must do more to prevent the next spill from occurring.

Preventing the next disaster

We can take steps to protect important places and to prevent drilling and other operations in risky locations. We can also encourage Congress to take the needed action to strengthen existing laws. As an initial step, let’s tell President Trump that his efforts to expand offshore leasing are unnecessary and unwise. The Administration needs to hear from thousands of people like you from across the country that it’s not ok to put important places in our ocean at risk.

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