The Ghost of the Deepwater Horizon Returns

Trump's secretary of the interior just unveiled the largest single expansion of offshore drilling activity ever proposed

A boat works to collect oil that has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico on April 28th, 2010. Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Like a hurricane or a trip to the frontlines of a war, seeing an oil spill up close is something you never forget. In 2010, a few days after the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that sent 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, I boarded a small plane and flew out over the still-burning wellhead. It was an apocalyptic sight: flames shooting into the sooty sky, oil shimmering on the water for miles in every direction. A few days later, as the oil started to wash up on shore, I walked along the coast in Grand Isle, Louisiana. "On the worst days, the oil flowed up on the beaches in ribbons, sticking to the sand like big black cobwebs," I wrote. "The smell was bad, too – a heavy, metallic, stomach-churning odor of volatilizing chemicals, of benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. It was the smell of cancer." Later, while I was out on a small boat, a pod of dolphins surfaced in the middle of an oil slick nearby. I could actually hear them coughing.

By any measure, the Deepwater Horizon blowout was a human and environmental catastrophe. Eleven workers died from the explosion. Thousands of dolphins, sea turtles and other marine animals were killed, hundreds of cleanup workers and other Gulf residents were exposed to toxic chemicals. The spill prompted a six-month shutdown of all deepwater drilling in the Gulf while the Obama administration established new rules to limit the scope of offshore oil exploration and make drilling safer.

On Thursday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke conjured up the ghost of the Deepwater Horizon when he unveiled the largest single expansion of offshore drilling activity ever proposed. The controversial plan would permit drilling in most U.S. continental-shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic. Under the proposal, only one of 26 planning areas in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico would be off-limits to oil and gas exploration between 2019 and 2024. Zinke accurately described the plan as a sharp departure from the Obama administration's effort to protect areas rather than exploit them. "This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance," Zinke said, casting the proposal in almost sexual terms.

The proposal sparked immediate outrage. "President Trump is once again defying a majority of American citizens, states, and businesses," former Vice President Al Gore tweeted. "His offshore drilling proposal threatens our coastal communities, just to prop up a dying fossil fuel industry."

Pushback from Democratic governors, senators and politicians in coast states was equally blunt. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island put it, "Not on my watch. Not in Rhode Island."

What was more surprising was the pushback from Republicans. Yes, there was some rah-rah from the Koch brothers crowd, including House Majority Leader Paul Ryan. But there was also a lot of dissent. "Protecting our environment and precious natural resources is a top priority for Governor Hogan and exactly why he has made clear that he opposes this kind of exploration off our coastline," said Douglass Mayer, a spokesman for Maryland's Republican Governor Larry Hogan. Mayer said Hogan directed his attorney general "to take any legal action necessary against the federal government to prevent this possible exploration." Even stalwart Republican pals of Trump like Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida, a pioneering climate denier who has had a long romance with fossil fuels, said Thursday that he adamantly opposes drilling off the state's coast and requested a meeting with Zinke. Why? Simple economics: beach tourism on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts generates nearly $50 billion and a half-million jobs annually, according to a Florida Atlantic University report. Even Scott understands that a Deepwater Horizon-like spill off the coast of Florida would be a catastrophe that his state would not soon recover from.

The fact that the Trump administration would push this forward, even with strong Republican opposition in important states like Florida, just shows you how much sway Big Oil has in the Trump administration. This is a wet dream proposal for Big Oil – it is exactly the kind of proposal they would write themselves, if they had the chance. (Which, if you think about it for a moment, is not surprising, given the sway the Koch brothers have over Republicans.) It is also in keeping with Trump's goal to Make American Great Again by taking us back to 19th Century-style fossil fuel capitalism, in which riches are acquired by those who are most shameless in their desire to rape and pillage the earth and exploit workers. Just last week, the Interior Department's rollback of drilling safety regulations after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill cited their "unnecessary … burden" on industry. 

Another way to think about this proposal is as a political move masquerading as energy policy. Zinke, Ryan and the other clowns who are backing this move know that a massive rollout of offshore drilling rigs in not going to happen. This is showboat stuff designed to impress his fossil-fuel-loving base, grab headlines, distract from the Russia investigation and Steve Bannon's betrayal and troll liberal elites in coastal cities who think burning fossil fuels is cooking the planet and putting the future of civilization at risk.

Most likely, both interpretations of this proposal are part of the calculation here. But the real motivation behind this proposal is probably more practical: By rolling out a big, splashy initiative like this, it creates negotiating room that may help build political momentum to open small areas of Alaska and the Gulf to offshore drilling in the coming years. It's a classic negotiating gambit: Ask for the moon, settle for a moon pie.

In the end, however, the future of offshore drilling in the U.S. will be driven mostly by the price of oil. Right now, with oil about $60 a barrel, no oil company is going to brave the harsh conditions in the water, the risk of environmental catastrophe, the lawsuits, the public protests and the marginal returns in order to start drilling deep off the continental shelf. It's just not worth the risk. In 2015, Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of its Arctic drilling campaign after spending $7 billion because of the rising cost, loud public opposition and extreme difficulty of exploring in rough, icy water. If oil hits $100 a barrel, that calculation might change. But until it does, no matter how loudly Zinke or Trump wants to crow about energy dominance, we're unlikely to see an armada of oil rigs off America's coasts.

What this proposal really demonstrates is that the best way to stop offshore drilling and prevent another Deepwater Horizon is not through regulatory reform, but with technological innovations like electric cars, which are capable of having a powerful impact on the demand for oil. Regulatory reforms can always be rolled back, watered down or ignored. But when oil is obsolete, the drilling will stop.