Waiting for a Reckoning: Reflections on World Oceans Day, the BP Oil Spill, and Worker Safety

Clarissa Libertelli

June 8, 2021

Today is World Oceans Day, a time to consider how ocean policy connects to human and environmental health. This year’s theme of “Life and Livelihoods” comes as our federal government is finally making energy jobs and climate justice a priority. It is also an opportunity to reflect on one of the most devastating events to impact Gulf Coast waters and those who depend on them — the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Eleven years on, workers continue to raise the alarm over the spill’s long-term health impacts, fighting against a backdrop of weak safety regulations.

Eleven workers were killed and 17 injured in the oil rig explosion that caused the largest marine oil spill in history, flooding over 200 million gallons of oil into the Louisiana coast for more than 87 days. The disaster and subsequent media frenzy rallied politicians and the public against the dangers of offshore drilling, and new rules and regulations for the industry soon followed.

The Rise and Fall of Post-Spill Reforms

Although President Obama’s emergency drilling moratorium received most of the attention at the time, the administration followed this initial reaction with a longer-term response consisting of major agency reorganization and a steady series of regulatory actions to bolster the safety of future operations. These included the requirement for oil spill response plans, new certification and safety rules for oil rigs, financial assurance requirements, and rules to ensure employee oversight of workplace safety. But like many other progressive policies slowly built upon and strengthened throughout the Obama years, these new rules and regulations didn’t stand a chance with Donald Trump in the White House.

Once in office, Trump quickly set about unraveling environmental and safety protections that he judged to be “unfairly holding back” America’s energy industry. In March 2017, Trump signed Executive Order 13783, which directed agencies to consider revising or rescinding any rules or actions that might impede energy production. 

Then came Executive Order 13795, “Implementing America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” which sought  to expand leasing in federal waters and explicitly specified which rules and orders Trump wanted changed or rescinded. In effect, these directives weakened nearly all of the reforms that had been put in place following the 2010 spill.

The Danger Continues

In the meantime, oil spills have continued to blot the news and the industry has not gotten much safer. Oil and gas workers face a fatal injury rate up to 15 times higher than the national average, which itself has been slowly rising. From 2008 to 2017, about as many workers died extracting oil and gas — 1,566 — as U.S. troops who were killed fighting in Afghanistan. Around the same time, the industry was cited for almost 11,000 safety violations, 64 percent of which were judged likely to result in “death or serious physical harm.” But these statistics reflect only the most direct and dramatic workplace safety issues facing the oil industry. 

Over a decade after exposure to toxins in the oil, chemical oil dispersants, and air pollutants, many workers struggle with symptoms such as shortness of breath, headaches, chronic cough, dizzy spells, painful joints, and chest pain. Connections have also been alleged between toxin exposure and chronic illnesses, including cancer. These long-term health impacts have been the subject of thousands of lawsuits filed against BP, but few have moved forward to trial or settlement. 

In the aftermath of 2010’s catastrophic spill, tender images of hands cleaning oil-slicked birds or saving struggling sea turtles filled news feeds. Workers were the faceless heroes of the clean-up effort, appearing in photographs as disembodied rubber gloves and blurry figures in the backgrounds of desecrated beaches. Now they are fighting to get to the foreground and have their own stories told. 

Looking Toward the Future

For many Americans, the BP oil spill was a cultural moment that ended once the media circus around it did. For workers and their families, the disaster continues. Today, as the Biden-Harris administration begins to make progress in addressing some of the most egregious damage done during the Trump era, it has an opportunity to honor the sacrifice of those workers and their families by building back policies that would prevent future disasters like Deepwater Horizon from occurring in the first place.

But as climate change looms over his administration — the biggest human-caused disaster of all, and one that we won’t have the luxury of compartmentalizing into a media moment — Biden has an even greater opportunity to make the entire dangerous business of oil and gas extraction obsolete. 

A focus on reforming the fossil fuel industry fails to recognize that workers are one of the many casualties of an industry that inherently places profits over people. Reflecting on Deepwater Horizon shows us that clean energy and worker safety are not separate issues.

We need bold policies incentivizing a smooth and equitable transition to renewable energy. Anything less will be deadly.

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