Nearly a decade after the 2010 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico—the worst oil industry disaster in history—offshore oil and gas development is dangerously outpacing our understanding of how to avoid future crisis.
Richard Wallace, a professor of environmental studies at Ursinus College, says, “The Gulf of Mexico is just a big glass of oil into which we’ve inserted thousands of straws. We look at the Gulf of Mexico and value it for its oil, its fisheries, what we can take from it. That’s so far removed from treating it as we should: as a cohesive ecosystem with animals, plants and ecological processes.”
Because of that, Wallace says, the risks to humans and nature posed by oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico are disproportionate to the benefits we derive, and when disasters such as the DWH occur, it is impossibly expensive to correct the damage done to ecological and human communities. “The Gulf is a sensitive ecosystem. If we treated terrestrial public land as we do the Gulf, people would be chaining themselves to trees,” he says.
Wallace is investigating the lessons that can be learned from Deepwater Horizon based on research by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). His new article, e“Improving the Integration of Restoration and Conservation in Marine and Coastal Ecosystems: Lessons from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster,” was recently published in Bioscience, a leading science journal. He co-authored the article with Sherryl Gilbert of the University of South Florida and the late John E. Reynolds, III, formerly of Mote Marine Laboratory.
“These crises provide us with learning opportunities which, to date, we have failed to take advantage of,” he says. “The question, then, is why do we fail to take advantage of them? Why is it that we allow development to outpace technology? Why do we take risks the effects of which we cannot fix when disasters occur”
Wallace notes that 10 years ago, the technology needed to cap the Deepwater Horizon well did not yet exist, and even today, oil and gas development continues despite the lack of sufficient disaster response technology and—perhaps more importantly—a thorough understating of the Gulf of Mexico’s ecological and other natural processes.
Today, environmental groups are lobbying for legislation that would ban offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico.
“We have an insatiable appetite for oil and fossil fuels that allows us to act in a perversely risky manner and then respond to crises after they occur. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was not only a deadly disaster for humans and the Gulf ecosystem, it was emblematic of our damage-first, restore-after approach to Gulf conservation. Greater benefit always comes from conserving resources first, such that we avoid disasters and the need to respond to them. But our desire for oil has turned that conservation philosophy on its head,” he says. “We have a long way to go, but I’m not pessimistic. Disaster breeds learning opportunities. Failure should be a learning opportunity. It’s been impossible to ignore. But will we apply those lessons?”