Report finds 'alarming unaddressed deficiencies' in US offshore oil drilling

Findings: Worker deaths, 1000s of spills continue

By Jen Christensen, CNN
Harry Gerwin/Getty Images

(CNN) - Even as the Trump administration has taken steps to expand offshore oil drilling, a new report shows that thousands of oil spills are still happening and that workers in the oil and gas industry are still dying on the job.

The report comes from Oceana, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring the oceans, which has sued the federal government to stop seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. The blasting is the first step needed to allow offshore drilling, when seismic airguns are used to find oil and gas deep under the ocean.

Every state along the Atlantic coast has opposed the blasting, worried that spills could hurt tourism and local fisheries. Some scientists say the testing could also hurt marine life, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The group tied its report, released Thursday, to the ninth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill to show what has been happening since the government promised to hold the industry accountable to higher safety standards.

That 2010 spill was one of the worst in US history, killing 11 people and dumping more than 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean, polluting over 1,300 miles of shoreline, killing wildlife and hurting human health. In the lawsuit that followed, a federal judge said the companies involved in the spill were "grossly negligent" in the runup to the disaster.

Using public records and interviews with people in the field, Oceana found that although there hasn't been another big blowout like the Deepwater accident, oil spills continue, and so do fatalities, though they're not often front-page news.

There were at least 6,500 oil spills in US waters between 2007 and 2017, according to the report, which said that's probably an undercount. Despite a decrease in fatality rates overall as an industry, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fatality rate of oil and gas industry workers, onshore and off-, was an average of seven times higher than that of other US workers in general between 2003 and 2013.

At the time of the Deepwater disaster, the US oil and gas industry had reported one of the highest fatality rates as compared to other oil-producing countries.

"Almost 10 years after the BP Deepwater oil spill, offshore drilling is just as dirty and dangerous, despite pledges otherwise," said Diane Hoskins, Oceana's campaign director. "There is still this unacceptable risk of devastating oil spills, and yet there is this call from the Trump administration to expand drilling to new areas and a call to abandon or weaken safety regulations. We should not be expanding drilling."

The United States is already the world's largest exporter of refined petroleum products, but the Trump administration has pushed for more. In April, Trump signed executive orders, which he called "Unleashing American Energy," that make it easier for companies to build gas and oil pipeline projects and make it harder for states to stop them.

He's revoked an order that banned oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, as well as the Atlantic, although that's tied up in the courts. A judge also ruled against the administration's approval of natural gas drilling plans on public lands in Colorado.

As part of its call for action, Oceana wants the US government to increase inspections. As of 2018, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement employs about 120 inspectors to conduct more than 20,000 inspections, the report found.

Fines are based on spill amounts that are generally estimated by the company and are often under-reported, studies have found. Civil penalties for violating offshore operating requirements are capped at $44,675 per day per violation.

"That's a rounding error when you know that operating costs can be about $1 million per day," Hoskins said. "Fines need to be higher."

The report also calls on the government to reduce its reliance on research and standards written by the oil industry.

There have been some improvements in industry-written research since the disaster, noted CJ Beegle-Krause, an expert on the oil industry who has worked for private industry, independent research organizations and in government research. She is not affiliated with the Oceana report. When it comes to transparency, for example, all industry projects require companies to publish details about their work in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

"The science is coming out and being reviewed, and that transparency has changed since the Deepwater Horizon," Beegle-Krause said. "Where my thinking comes from is that you need government, industry and academics working together from different viewpoints, to provide balance in terms of perspective. Each know quite a bit about oil and the environment, and working together, you get much better results."

Is the industry safer now than before the spill? "That is not an easy question to answer," Beegle-Krause said, but it's in the industry's best interest to keep people safe and avoid accidents.

Hoskins is certain that more needs to be done to prevent spills and make the industry safer.

"The facts are clear, and the anniversary is a painful reminder of what is at stake," she said. "We hope President Trump and the Department of Interior listen to this report."

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