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EPA Gives BP 'Get Out of Jail Free Card' on 4th Anniversary of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Disaster

Energy

Today is the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and dumped more than 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a three month period in 2010.

BP's critics say that the Deepwater Horizon disaster and other accidents were not just a run of bad luck, but the result of an ingrained corporate culture which routinely put profits above safety.

You wouldn't think that the London-based company that spilled the oil would get an anniversary gift from the federal government. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just given BP a big one. The EPA ruled that the corporation could start bidding on lucrative new oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico after having been suspended from doing any new business with the government ever since the accident.  

That suspension was lifted on March 13 less than a week before the yearly government auction for drilling rights. The company whose negligence was responsible for the worst marine oil-spill in history won 43 new leases in the Gulf that is still fouled by million of gallons of unrecovered crude. 

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was not the first time that BP was found culpable in a major accident. In 2005 the company was deemed criminally liable for a refinery explosion in Texas City which killed 15 people. Yet again in 2006, a Justice Department investigation found that BP had willfully ignored evidence of serious corrosion in its pipeline, which led in Alaska to the largest oil spill ever in the Arctic. 

BP's critics say this was not just a run of bad luck, but the result of an ingrained corporate culture which routinely put profits above safety. In an interview, Tyson Slocum of the public interest group Public Citizen said: "If ordinary people are found guilty in three felony cases, they will be imprisoned—suspension from contracts is a kind of corporate imprisonment." 

However, under intense pressure from BP, which filed a lawsuit challenging the contract ban, and the British government, which filed a brief in the case criticizing the U.S. for its action, the company was just granted a get out of jail free card by the Obama administration. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, the head of the EPA suspension and debarment office which ordered the original ban against the oil giant, "retired" just days after the administration caved to BP's demand to end their 5-year criminal probation period early. 

After the Gulf oil spill, there were calls in the environmental community and in Congress to reform the outdated regulatory system. "The last time that regulations for offshore drilling were written," says Slocum “was 1978. Deepwater wells, like the Deepwater Horizon were introduced in 1994. So what you've got is regulations for the typewriter age applying to iPhones."

In the aftermath of the disaster, Congress passed a bill in the summer of 2010 which called for a comprehensive reorganization of the Offshore Oil Agency, and for tougher new environmental standards. But, under pressure from the American Petroleum Institute that bill died in the Senate. 

The Obama administration then took matters into its own hands calling for a temporary moratorium on drilling. By executive decree, the President reintroduced many of the same rules that had been included in the ill-fated bill. These rules, however, do not have the force of law and can be reversed by future administrations. 

Moreover, the central problem, according to Slocum, remains: "Remember, we all watched in horror over a period of two and a half months how one of the largest and most profitable multinationals on the planet with some of the smartest engineers in the world had absolutely no idea how to cap that well ... We still do not have clear certification that any driller—whether they be BP or Exxon or Shell—has the right equipment and the proven technology to stop a deepwater blowout." 

Slocum says drillers need to be required by law to have equipment on hand to drill a relief well in case of a future blowout. And we also need to require companies to thoroughly test in advance critical equipment—like the faulty blowout protector which malfunctioned to cause the Deepwater Horizon accident.  

However, we're unlikely to get these critical regulations anytime soon. The American Petroleum Institute has said that they will oppose any efforts to impose new regulations on offshore drilling. One of the wealthiest and most powerful lobbies in Washington, the American Petroleum Institute generally gets what it asks for.

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An alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, as seen here in Christmas Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California on Feb. 15, 2020. jcookfisher / CC BY 2.0

California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.

The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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