What Happened in the Aftermath of the Oil Spill

By Jesse Schneider

The Macondo Well, an oil and gas prospect 40 miles off the Louisiana Coast, shares its name with the fictitious cursed town in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s eerily prescient that it was the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which led to one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history.

“It’s not simply an issue of science, but also of legal and policy decisions,” said Donald Boesch, a member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling formed in the aftermath of the spill.

The Macondo Well exploded in April of 2010 and wasn’t sealed until September. During that time, the government estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

Boesch and his fellow commission members were tasked with formulating and delivering a report on what caused the disaster. They did so, and received positive reviews for a highly-readable narrative of the incident.

“We were helping the government tell a story about the spill and then connect the dots about what went wrong,” he said.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Boesch detailed what the commission found; how the government and industry responded; and where journalists can look for story ideas.

Boesch highlighted factors that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including flawed design, high-risk cementing procedures, poor communication and failure to respond appropriately once the blowout began. In essence, he said, Transocean, the company that owned the rig, and BP, the company that managed it, were found culpable because the spill was both foreseeable and preventable.

“The bottom line is that they were in a hurry, behind schedule and over budget,” said Boesch. “And none of the companies, not even BP, had the capacity to come in and cap an oil spill.”

The commission’s recommendations included measures to improve safety and safeguard the environment. These recommendations were part of the RESTORE Act of 2012, which fined BP for violating the Clean Water Act. However, the act did not mandate safety regulations or raise spill liability, a key omission and a missed opportunity to prevent future disasters, according to Boesch.

During the ensuing trial, Boesch testified on the seriousness of harm caused by the spill, including damage to marine wildlife and deep sea corals, and potential harm, including the threat to bottom fishes and oysters.

For their part, BP witnesses said fish and shellfish populations did not suffer significant harm, but Boesch says the witnesses were using data from the whole Gulf of Mexico – not specifically the area surrounding the site of the spill.

“I was shocked by how unsophisticated and simplistic their argument was,” Boesch said.

Boesch steered journalists toward the rehabilitation efforts that stem from the eventual settlement with BP and others as a potential treasure trove of story ideas. He encouraged journalists to investigate how relevant a rehabilitation project is, whether it effectively monitors outcomes and how – if at all – it accounts for climate change.

Looking to the future, Boesch predicted “virtually all offshore oil and gas development will be in the Gulf of Mexico.” He underscored the need to remember the lessons from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

This program is funded by the Walton Family Foundation. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

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