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Deepwater Horizon: the world has changed, but the oil industry hasn’t

Posted by Mal Chadwick - 5th October 2016

Everyone knows the story.

Miles below the seabed, a cement seal fails. A rig explodes. Smoke fills the sky, oil stains the sea, and 11 people never make it home. Ashen-faced execs stumble through press conferences. Rubber-gloved hands scrub poison from seabirds’ wings. Everyone solemnly agrees this must not happen again.

This week sees the release of Deepwater Horizon, Hollywood’s big-budget retelling of the disaster. Rather than foregrounding the well-documented environmental destruction, Peter Berg’s film pays tribute to the 126 men and women aboard the rig that day, weaving its story from the tragedy and heroism on display as the disaster unfolded.

But then what? More than six years after one of the biggest environmental disasters of modern times, what’s changed?

For the people of the Gulf, this isn’t over

The human cost of this tragedy began with the 11 workers killed in the original explosion, and it’s been mounting ever since.

As the oil spread, more than 47,000 workers mobilised for a giant cleanup operation, scrubbing a potent cocktail of oil and chemical dispersants from over 1,000 miles of coastline, sometimes with minimal safety equipment. Then people got sick. The list of health impacts reported by cleanup workers reads like the terrifying side-effects section on a medicine label:

“Eye, nose and throat irritation; respiratory problems; blood in urine, vomit and rectal bleeding; seizures; nausea and violent vomiting episodes that last for hours; skin irritation, burning and lesions; short-term memory loss and confusion; liver and kidney damage; central nervous system effects and nervous system damage; hypertension; and miscarriages.”

The spill also took a heavy psychological toll. In common with other environmental disasters, local communities showed mental health impacts likened to post-traumatic stress disorder.

And although the world’s attention has drifted, community members in the area have battled on — not just opposing new drilling projects, but articulating a different kind of future for the region. The mission statement for the #NoNewLeases movement rings with hope and conviction:

“We share a deep, abiding and unwavering belief that another Gulf is possible.

We, the people of the Gulf South and the Global South, stand united and firm we need a just transition for the sake of the life and livelihoods of our communities, our cultures and our ecosystems.

We will no longer stand to be a sacrifice zone for this country, we demand justice and equity.”

But the region still depends on fossil fuel jobs

Fossil fuels are still hurting us, and clean energy is the future. But we can’t just walk away. It’s the same dilemma faced by the whole world, but in the Gulf it’s particularly acute.

That’s why people talk about the need for a ‘just transition’ — shifting away from fossil fuels without leaving blameless workers on the scrapheap of history. It won’t be easy, but there are a few glimmers of hope: the Gulf coast oil rig engineers branching out into offshore windfarm installation, and a new study showing how coal workers could be affordably re-trained for jobs in the booming solar industry.

After 300 years, we’re still terrible at handling fossil fuels

Every month, the global fossil fuel industry seems to find a creative new way to put its products in places they don’t belong.

From northern Russia to the Niger Delta, oil, coal and gas infrastructure continues to leakspillcrashexplode and run aground with exhausting regularity. These incidents aren’t always as devastating as Deepwater Horizon, but they always walk the same line between tragedy and farce.

Here’s David Roberts’ account of an attempt to plug a leaking gas well in California earlier this year:

“When [the leak] was first discovered, the company began dumping a mix of brine and mud down the well, to contain the gas. Then it ran into an ice plug, where water had bonded with the methane. The company melted the ice plug with antifreeze and continued dumping, but the pressure of the gas coming up, 2,700 pounds per square inch, remained higher than the pressure of the mud going down. Eventually the company had to abandon that strategy, for fear of pushing mud so hard it would fracture the pipe.”

It’s 2016. Our go-to emergency response involves dumping mud down a hole and hoping for the best. If this is the answer, perhaps we’re asking the wrong question.

BP hasn’t changed…

When US officials investigated the Deepwater Horizon disaster, they laid the blame squarely with BP, using words like ‘reckless’ and ‘gross negligence’ to describe the company’s attitude to safety. These aren’t people you want fooling around in your whale sanctuaries.

But as I write, the company is trying to drill new wells off Australia’s wildlife-rich south coast, and they’re still not inspiring much confidence — in this remote environment, even their own estimates say it could take them five weeks to stop a spill. And last week the country’s safety regulator rebuffed their application, pointing out big gaps in their environmental plan.

Clean energy has arrived

BP might not have changed, but the world has.

Imagine you’d woken up on the morning of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and decided to cover your roof in solar panels. In the UK you’d have paid about £20,000 for a good-sized system. Six years on, that same system costs £6,000.

It’s the same story with wind turbines.

And the batteries that power electric vehicles.

Hardly anyone predicted these astonishing trends, but even at this early stage they’re already changing the world, and suddenly the oil companies don’t look quite as invincible as they used to.

These days, when we look back at the things that threatened our ancestors, they seem not just tragic, but slightly ridiculous. We marvel that people lived with these risks every day, and feel grateful that they’re no longer a part of our world. It’s time oil drilling joined that category.

In the UK, oil-fuelled air pollution cuts short 40,000 lives every year. Let’s change that: join the campaign to clean up our air and move away from dirty transport.

Article Tagged as: Climate, Featured