No more moratorium on offshore drilling?

Photo by J. Henry Fair accompanied his blog post on the BP disaster, "A World Gone Crazy." His website, Industrial Scars features photographs from his book, The Day After Tomorrow, Images of Our Earth in Crisis, to be be released on January 4, 2011 and available at this link for pre-order via Amazon.

I wrote this piece on an assignment from Matt Seaton, web editor for the Guardian where it appears as "Deepwater drilling: risks and consequences".

It's up for review at Newstrust, thanks to Barry Grossheim.


On 11 October, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Hungarian police had arrested an executive connected to red sludge spill, which had killed eight people.

For months, we've heard of Deepwater Horizon's 20 April explosion, killing 11 platform workers, injuring 17 others. We've mourned the deaths, the idled fishermen and oil rig roughnecks, the marshlands and wildlife coated in crude oil, the estimated 185m gallons of oil dumped, according to independent study. We've rued lost livelihoods, as images of tar-coated beaches shrank tourism. We've railed as Mac McClelland documented BP's restriction of press access. And on 13 October, Obama's own commission meets to discuss its preliminary reports critical of the White House's handling of the spill.

So, I was disappointed when interior secretary Ken Salazar announced an early end to the offshore drilling moratorium imposed 28 May. He told reporters about "significant progress in reducing the risks associated with deepwater drilling", concluding, "it is now appropriate to lift the suspension", based on Michael Bromwich's report as director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM). Salazar thus seemingly contradicts his 30 September promise to require proof that industry has reduced risk of another spill and to issue rules beyond those drafted covering standards for well equipment (pdf) and worker training (pdf). The ban, enjoined by the courts, only to be reissued, was to have lasted six months.

Obama has faced pressure as the oil industry called for the moratorium's end, through its Institute for Energy Research which had always emphasised the safety of drilling prior to the spill. Regional officials and businesses complained about economic impacts, including Senator Mary Landrieu (Democrat, Louisiana), who blocked confirmation (pdf) of the nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget. An environmental coalition – including the Centre for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and Southern Environmental Law Centre – urged that the freeze continue and extend to shallow-water drilling.

Salazar's announcement seems to favour the oil industry and its supporters; it doesn't satisfy Landrieu, however. She issued a statement refusing to release her hold, saying she would look "closely at how BOEM is handling the issuing of permits and whether or not drilling activity in both shallow and deep water is resuming… [to] evaluate if today's lifting of the moratorium is actually putting people back to work."
Meanwhile, those who see themselves as protecting public health and the environment criticise the ban's end. Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Centre for Biological Diversity, responded to my query, sending this press release, and writing:
Salazar's decision to lift the moratorium is yet another mistake…the real crux is that the agency that is supposed to be overseeing oil drilling has completely failed to evaluate the environmental impacts before allowing it to go forward.  Nothing has been done yet to solve the problem of impacts of oil drilling on the Gulf's ecosystem and wildlife.
Ervin Gonzalez, an attorney with spill victims' steering committee, appointed by the US district court, wrote to me that:
The creation of rules does nothing to protect the public and the environment if those responsible fail to follow the safety rules and ignore common sense measures that prevent tragedies like… [this] disaster. BP, Transocean and Halliburton violated numerous rules, regulations and safety measures that resulted in tremendous damage and devastation… We cannot and must not trust the oil companies to supervise themselves and take their word that they will follow the rules and regulations.
So, as John Lennon says, Imagine...What if officers of corporations in the oil, coal or auto industry were to face arrest and possible prosecution, when their actions in the US – as in Hungary – result in deaths? Might that change the calculation of acceptable risk?