It’s been one year since a the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven workers and ultimately flooding the surrounding sea with over 200 million gallons of oil in the worst environmental disaster in American history.
Confusion reigned while oil gushed from the damaged rig, as engineers tried to stop the flow with everything from a giant underwater dome to thousands of golf balls. But there was one thing nearly everybody agreed upon—stronger regulation of offshore drilling was needed, to both prevent leaks and contain the damage if they did occur.
President Barack Obama declared that “we’re going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards,” and his administration imposed an offshore drilling moratorium until safety protocols could be updated. Polls found over 70 percent of Americans favored stronger regulation of oil exploration. Even some Republicans agreed—Senator Lindsey Graham said he wanted to “find out what happened in the gulf and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The offshore drilling moratorium was lifted in October. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that a new “gold standard” of safety measures was in place, and the first permit for offshore drilling was issued in February—to a company partially owned by BP. Nineteen permits have been issued since.
In his energy speech late last month, Obama assured the public these new leases require maximum safety. “What we learned from [the Deepwater] disaster helped us put in place smarter standards of safety and responsibility,” he said. “For example, if you‘re going to drill in deepwater, you‘ve got to prove before you start drilling that you can actually contain an underwater spill. That‘s just common sense.”
There’s just one problem—that’s not at all true. Some of the same fundamental engineering failures that created the gulf oil spill are still in place, and may not be addressed any time soon.
On the Deepwater Horizon rig, a blowout preventer should have kept oil from spilling into the ocean after the initial explosion, but it failed. A government-backed forensic study of the blowout preventer failure released last month found that the failure was not an aberration but rather a product of a basic design flaw. One critical part of the blowout preventer—“shear rams,” a pair of blades designed to cut through pipe and seal an oil well off in an emergency—functioned properly, but failed to completely seal the well. The report found a second pair of shear rams is probably needed to ensure wells are sealed in an emergency.