The Worst Oil Disaster You Never Heard

Eight years ago, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico devastated communities, wildlife and livelihoods all along the Gulf coast. While dying dolphins and oil-soaked marsh grass dominated the headlines, the human cost was catastrophic. Now, it appears that a new disaster is slowly unfolding that may soon eclipse that horrific event to become the worst environmental disaster in US history. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan triggered an undersea mudslide that sank an oil platform owned by Taylor Energy. Since then, between 300 and 700 barrels of oil have been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Let’s put that into perspective. The Deepwater Horizon disaster spilt almost 200m gallons of oil into the Gulf. To date, the Taylor spill has released as much as 140m gallons of oil into the Gulf. What is even more shocking is that 14 years since the Taylor oil platform sank, federal officials estimate the uncapped wells could continue polluting the Gulf for decades, perhaps even a century. It is a nightmare scenario that should terrify anyone who cares about the health of the wildlife and people who live along the Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, the damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon leak remains a stark reminder of the havoc an oil spill can unleash on marine wildlife, coastal communities and local businesses that rely on a healthy ocean. With these tragedies still fresh in our collective national consciousness, you would think no administration would pursue drastic expansion of risky offshore oil and gas development. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Even as the magnitude of the Taylor Energy spill comes to light, the Trump administration is gearing up to announce the next iteration of its draft plan for offshore oil and gas development. It will be a revision of the plan announced this past January that proposed opening an astounding 98% of federal waters to oil and gas development. That reckless plan was met with fierce opposition from both Republican and Democrat representatives, small businesses and major industries, and coastal and inland residents from Alaska to Florida. Several bills have introduced this Congress, many of them bipartisan, to prohibit or severely limit drilling in nearly every region of our outer continental shelf.

A supermajority of Floridian voters just approved a state constitutional amendment permanently banning offshore oil and gas development in their state’s waters. Rightly, they are not ready to jeopardise their beaches and marine environment, which brought the state $88bn and 1.4m jobs in 2016. In Alaska, the state legislature, Governor Bill Walker, the congressional delegation, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and Alaska Native tribes rallied in vigorous opposition to oil and gas leasing in important and sensitive marine habitats throughout their state. On the east coast, states are battling to prevent risky offshore oil and gas development. Senators from Maine cited the state’s $1.7bn lobster industry, North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, talked about the state’s $3bn a year in visitor spending, and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, referenced the 60% of the state’s population that lives along its coastline.

Millions of us made certain that the Department of the Interior heard our opposition to risking our way of life and livelihoods in order to benefit oil companies during public comment periods to the proposed expansion. These views should now be taken into consideration before releasing the next iteration of the 2019-2024 offshore oil and gas development proposal. Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” narrative should be investing in renewable energy innovation instead of ceding dominance in that growing industry to other countries like China. This reckless plan also ignores the reality that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of our ocean, rising waters are eroding our coastlines, and voracious fires, crippling droughts and increasingly powerful hurricanes are becoming the new normal. Disasters such as Deepwater Horizon and the 14-year Taylor Energy spill offer vivid demonstrations of the environmental and economic risks of offshore drilling. If the next draft proposal continues to ignore the concerns of coastal communities, the Trump administration will have once again shown that it is prioritizing the profits of the oil and gas industry over all else. As America continues to struggle with the after-effects of the BP oil spill and begins to wake up to the reality of the Taylor oil spill, we cannot allow the Trump administration to sow the seeds of yet another disaster that will devastate the health of our environment and the livelihoods of countless hard-working American families.

Credits: Janis Searles Jones and Philippe Cousteau for The Guardian, 28 December 2018. Janis Searles Jones is the CEO of Ocean Conservancy. Philippe Cousteau is the founder of EarthEcho International.