Light on the Horizon: Lessons from the BP Oil Disaster

Photo: Antonia Juhasz

One month before the end of President Barack Obama’s term, he banned all future offshore oil and gas drilling from nearly 120 million acres of land in the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean. The bans, which are indefinite, include most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, as well as a large swath of the Atlantic from Massachusetts to Virginia. In a joint announcement with the White House, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also designated all Canadian waters in the Arctic as indefinitely off limits to drilling, a ban which will be reviewed every five years. These actions are intended to be permanent, and impervious to the machinations of the incoming Trump Administration, which has pledged to open more federal lands—onshore and offshore—for oil and gas production. But Trump’s Administration is mounting a resistance.

“Americans just rejected the ‘keep it in the ground’ extremism espoused by those whose only operating focus is their view that CO2 is a pollutant and climate change is real,” wrote Doug Domenech, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Fueling Freedom Project, a week after Trump was elected president. Four days later, Domenech took the helm of the transition team for the Department of Interior, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the nation’s federal lands and oceans, including the leasing, regulation, and oversight of fossil fuel development. This month, the Texas Public Policy Foundation hosted an Energy and Climate Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., at which Texas Republican Congressman Pete Olson, Chairman of the House Energy & Power Subcommittee, asked, “why is Alaska or the Atlantic or Pacific or federal lands untouchable” for fossil fuel development?

There are few people better qualified to answer that question than the survivors of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I reported in my June 2015 feature, “Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea,” the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed eleven people, was just the beginning of the disaster. In the months that followed, millions of gallons of crude oil poured into the Gulf, killing wild life, sickening local residents, and crippling the region’s once-thriving fishing industry. Six years after the spill, I caught up with lawyers, locals, fishers, scientists, environmentalists, and the wife of a Deepwater Horizon rig survivor, to find out how the region, and those most harmed by the disaster, are recovering.

At 9:40 p.m., April 20, 2010, an explosion erupted on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The sound jolted roustabout Stephen Lane Stone awake where he slept in his cabin, two floors below the surface deck. A second explosion quickly followed, the force of which, he would later testify at a Congressional hearing, felt as though it was ripping through his entire body. Stone grabbed his life jacket, shoes, and wedding ring and ran out into the hallway. There he joined more than one hundred of his fellow shipmates racing through darkness—past fires, screams, smoke, and maimed crew members—before finally reaching a lifeboat. Thirty-one hours later, Stone was reunited with his wife, Sara, at a hotel in New Orleans. Eleven men never made it off of the rig.

For Stephen, Sara, and countless other oil workers and their families, as well as for fisher folk, Gulf residents, environmentalists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians, and many others, this night marked the beginning, not the end, of an unfolding disaster.

In October, Sara told me that Stephen still suffers from what she gently describes as “temperament” issues. He is ever on edge, ready to prevent the next tragedy. “Stephen sleeps in the living room at night. He’s afraid to fall asleep,” she said. He worries that he won’t wake up if someone breaks in. Sara, who for the last six months has begun to see a therapist, suffers from “hyper vigilance,” always seeking to protect her husband. The couple have both been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, born not only from one night of terror, but also of the realizations that came next: the oil industry they both trusted had wantonly put both lives and safety at risk, the government had failed to provide even remotely adequate supervision, and the legal system had done little to help them put their lives back together—or hold industry and government to account.

The Stones spent five long years battling BP in court. Their cases finally settled on April 20, 2015, after having been delayed both by BP’s refusal to negotiate and the U.S. District Court’s litigation process, which required that virtually every case—from that brought by the U.S. Department of Justice to those brought by individual fishers—to pass through a single judge, resulting in a massive backlog. The Stones’ lawyer, Brent Coon, wanted to go before a jury. Instead, not a single one of his 10,000 spill-related cases saw public light. Tired from years of fighting, the Stones agreed to a settlement, which was reached with BP under strict confidentiality agreements. “At some point it comes down to a choice of getting healthy again or continuing to fight what is pretty much is a losing battle,” Sara told me. Coon agreed: “When the sins of the company exceed its ability to pay them, everyone has to sit down and cut a crappy deal.”

Under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, BP is essentially required to pay to put everything back to where it was before the spill, including people, places, the economy, the environment, and wildlife. Doing so has involved what Coon described as the “ largest litigation in U.S. jurisprudence,” taking years to resolve.

The Court first prioritized two massive class action settlements with BP to compensate those who suffered direct medical and economic damages. The results have been mixed. Out of a coastal population of 21 million and 140,000 oil spill cleanup workers, only 37,281 people have filed claims for the Medical Benefits Settlement as of November 1. Nearly half of the claims are still pending, 20 percent have been rejected, and just 12,881, or a mere 35 percent, are approved. Cleanup workers and residents were eligible for as much as $60,700 and $36,950 in benefits, respectively, plus an additional $60,000 or more for hospitalization expenses, yet the payments average to about $3,100 per claim, with a total of $40.2 million allocated thus far.

Of the 386,622 claims submitted in the Economic and Property Damages Settlement, only about 40 percent have been deemed eligible for payments. Businesses are the largest single category of recipients; subsistence earners are next. Approximately $10 billion has been paid, averaging to about $63,000 per claim (though payments are not consistent across claims). About $2.3 billion of this was set aside for those in the seafood industry; payments to whom are expected to conclude this month.

Many of the most desperate and often smallest-scale fishers were excluded from this settlement because they accepted a one-time $5,000 payment offered by BP in the first months of the spill. “They’re basically ruined,” Byron Encalade, President of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, told me. Byron, like his family for generations before him, is an oysterman in the small, mostly African-American community of Point a la Hache, Louisiana. “We’re doing bad,” Byron told me. “We keep saying it can’t get any worse, and it keeps getting worse. There’s no oysters on the east bank of the river. None.” Byron argues that “oyster plantations,” or the larger businesses, got most of BP’s money, while many smaller companies and individuals simply couldn’t make ends meet. In his community, these former oystermen are now supported by parents and grandparents; their hopes of sending their own children to college have been dashed. “So, it’s a domino effect,” Byron said. “In simple words: we still haven’t begun to recover.”

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration finds that Gulf-wide catches of oysters declined by nearly 5 million pounds between 2009 and 2014, while Gulf shrimp catches declined by 35 million pounds during the same period. Over the same time period,the percentage of U.S. oysters from the Gulf fell from 61 percent to less than 50 percent, while Gulf shrimp declined from 81 percent of the U.S. total to 66 percent today.

In February, five years of comprehensive study of the damage done by BP to natural resources conducted by multiple federal and state agencies concluded with the release of the more than 1,600-page Final Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan and Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. It reports that as many as 8.3 billion oysters in the Gulf were lost as a result of the oil spill, and that the subsequent “dramatic decreases in oyster densities and the associated reproductive injury imperils the sustainability of oysters in the northern Gulf of Mexico.”

The National Wildlife Federation highlighted some of the report’s most critical findings, revealing a catastrophic toll. The oil spill killed as many as five trillion larval fish. Up to twenty percent of the Kemp’s ridley adult female turtles in the Gulf were also killed. According to the report, at least 93 species of birds were exposed to BP oil, with brown and white pelicans, laughing gulls, black skimmers, white ibis, double-crested cormorants, common loons, and several species of terns particularly hard hit. “Nearly all of the populations of dolphins and whales in affected areas have ‘demonstrable, quantifiable injuries.’… In the five years after the disaster, more than three-quarters of pregnant bottlenose dolphins in the oiled areas failed to give birth to a viable calf,” the report found. Their populations “could ultimately decline by more than half before they recover,” which could take as long as fifty years. The most affected species of marine mammal living in deeper waters were Bryde’s whales; nearly half were exposed to oil, and nearly a quarter died, jeopardizing the possible survival of the species in the Gulf. The list goes on.

To this day, the Gulf remains under constant assault by the oil industry. Jonathan Henderson of Vanishing Earth spent six years tracking BP’s oil, now he tries to physically track the other oil spills here, as no one else is doing it. But it’s a tall order. He directed me to a map, created by using data from the U.S. Coast Guard, depicting the nearly 10,000 oil and hazardous material spills reported in the offshore Gulf of Mexico from July 2010 to April 2015. Also using Coast Guard data, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade found that in just the three weeks from September 15 to October 6, nearly 100 spills from offshore and inland facilities, pipelines, platforms, tanks and vessels, occurred in Louisiana alone.

Little preparation for future disasters, large or small, is being done.

Yet, for all the work still to be done, there was cause for optimism. Virtually everyone I spoke with, many of whom I have known since I began covering the disaster more than six years ago, and whose lives are measured on a timeline of before and after “the spill,” are more hopeful than I have ever known them to be. When we talked in October, Encalade just returned from the White House, where he received a “Champions of Change” award in recognition for his years of service fighting for sustainable fisheries. “For so long, folks have been focused on ‘who’s to blame?’… Now we just gotta recover,” he told me. “Mother nature is not going to be able to overcome all of this on her own. We have to help.”

In April, a federal judge approved a $20 billion settlement for all remaining civil claims against BP brought by the federal government, the five gulf states, and some 400 local governments. The monies, to be disbursed over sixteen years, include $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act fines, $7.1 billion for ecological and wildlife harms and restoration, and $5.9 billion for state and local government economic damages. It is the largest settlement of its kind (though, as I have argued previously, falling well-short of what was required) and accomplished many goals, most importantly, initiating perhaps the largest program of environmental restoration and recovery in history.

Take, for example, the project to restore the shores of Louisiana’s West Grand Terre Island. West Grand Terre is part of an inverted arc of barrier islands that were (and remain) battered by BP’s oil. According to Scott Eustis of the Gulf Restoration Network, on a warm day, BP’s oil can be seen bubbling up through the light brown sand. The islands provide critical protection for inland areas from hurricanes and floods, habitat to migrating and nesting birds, fishing grounds, and human recreation. They are also beautiful, but they are disappearing into the rising sea—an already bad situation made far worse by BP’s oil, which eats away at marsh and plant roots, opening new passages for saltwater to further erode the islands.

Because of the islands’ disappearing coastlines, they were already the focus of a restoration project drawn up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This put Louisiana far ahead of the other Gulf states in knowing how to spend its billions of BP dollars, ensuring against fiascos, such as Alabama’s allocation of $58.5 million in BP funds for a 350-room hotel and conference center.And the prospect for future projects looks bright. The terms of the $20 billion settlement and the 2012 Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act) established eight new decision-making bodies to ensure that funds are spent properly. They are composed of representatives of more than a dozen federal and state agencies, with the active input of nongovernmental organizations and concerned Gulf residents. Local and national groups alike are optimistic about the process, which is setting the stage for the next fifteen years of restoration. “It’s an incredible opportunity and responsibility,” explained the National Wildlife Federation’s Jessie Ritter. They’ve established “an integrated compressive ecosystem approach with the focus on large holistic projects, which can truly restore the Gulf.”

In the last year, a local protest movement demanding a halt to new offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico has grown dramatically.Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, has worked for nearly two decades to reign in the oil industry here. She spoke with me last March at the New Orleans Superdome, at the largest such protest I’ve ever witnessed. Prior to the BP Deepwater Horizon, making this sort of demand was“almost a dangerous thing to call for­­, as if you would be driven out of the state or be exposed to some sort of violence,” she said. Six years later,“people are cleaving to that call.” And even in conservative Alabama, Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, was effusive when describing how locals have come to treasure their environment in ways not seen prior to April 20, 2010, and to appreciate how deeply intertwined the health of their state’s economy is to a healthy environment.“Thinking you could lose it shook people to the core. That’s the good part,” she told me. “The bad part is that they don’t connect an oil disaster with driving their car.”

Sara Stone choked back tears as she discussed the anger both she and Stephen continue to direct at themselves for not pushing harder to bring about changes in the oil industry. When she reflected on the likelihood of another similar disaster, she broke down. “People need to know that this is happening and we’re all allowing this to happen,” she said. Even by driving our cars, we’re contributing to the problem. She hoped Deepwater Horizon, a film about the disaster released this fall by Summit Entertainment, would “let people know the gravity of what happened. Something we just couldn’t explain.” She hoped also that it would encourage more people to identify the role they can play in bringing about change.

“We’re all a part of it!” she said. “As much as you may want to disconnect it from it, you’re just simply lying to yourself.”

1As the Executive Director of Alabama’s Mobile Baykeeper, Casi Callaway’s frustration rises to a sort of infuriated bewilderment when she discusses that project. “If you’re building new parking lots and roads…you’re promoting continued dependence on oil. But oil caused the disaster in the first place!”