On March 23rd, weeks before the sixth anniversary of the BP oil spill, hundreds of protesters march into the New Orleans Superdome carrying banners reading "Keep It In the Ground," "No More Drilling" and "No New Leases." Hurricane Katrina made the Superdome an icon of climate destruction and government ineptitude, but on this day, the Interior Department has made it the location of a federal auction for 45 million acres in the offshore Gulf of Mexico for new oil and gas drilling.
Less than two weeks later, Louisiana Federal District Judge Carl Barbier accepted a final settlement agreement between BP, the federal government, five states and hundreds of local governments, bringing to an end the feds' six-year case against BP and most major outstanding legal cases against the company stemming from the April 20, 2010, Macondo well blowout and the worst offshore drilling oil spill in history.
At $20 billion, it is the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history, and the largest civil settlement with a single entity ever. Nonetheless, as Rolling Stone previously reported, BP got off cheaply with the deal, while decisions made as part of the legal process made offshore oil drilling more dangerous.
The final criminal case against BP and Halliburton employees stemming from the disaster was also heard this month. Federal prosecutors originally sought criminal charges, including manslaughter. In the end, all they achieved were acquittals or plea bargains for lesser offenses that resulted in no prison time for any of the five men charged (the most senior among them a BP vice president), with the final case ending in a misdemeanor charge and probation.
Industry and government have learned crucial lessons from the blowout at BP's Macondo well, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the deaths of 11 men and the release of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Few of those lessons, however, have been acted upon. Instead, it is "business as usual" in offshore drilling, argues David Pritchard, a petroleum engineer who consults for major oil companies, including BP, Mobil, Chevron and Halliburton.
President Obama is expanding offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, maintaining drilling in the Pacific and, as part of a newly proposed five-year plan (open to public comment until May 2nd), planning new drilling in the Arctic and even more in the Gulf. In response to overwhelming public opposition, however, the administration shelved a plan to drill in the Atlantic.
The Department of the Interior has sought to improve offshore drilling safety over the last six years, including over 500 pages of new rules released just last week. Experts warn, however, that these efforts remain woefully insufficient, particularly as companies move to even riskier deeper depths, with 86 percent of new oil production in the Gulf taking place 1,000 to nearly 5,000 feet deeper than BP was drilling the Macondo, including two projects at depths nearly twice as great.
"Are the new guidelines enough to prevent another Macondo disaster?" asks Robert Bea, a 60-year oil-industry veteran and head of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, which contributed analysis to the National Oil Spill Commission. "No! They did not address the key factors at its roots."