Deepwater Horizon, One Year Later: A Conversation With Carl Safina

Talking to the author of "A Sea in Flames" about how offshore drilling has—and hasn't changed—since the Gulf spill

At approximately 9:50 p.m. on April 20, 2010, a well ruptured at the Macondo 252 site, three miles under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast. The blowout would kill 11 men, destroy the Deepwater Horizon rig, and, 205.8 million gallons of oil later, constitute the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout is conservationist Carl Safina's impassioned account of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a tale of industry mismanagement and environmental catastrophe in a region already facing "death by a thousand cuts". Safina recounts the chain of misjudgments and shortcuts leading up to the blowout by Transocean, which owned Deepwater Horizon, and the incoherent, ad hoc response of BP and the Coast Guard. Finally, he considers the inexhaustible thirst for fossil fuels that was ultimately responsible for the disaster, and the even more devastating effects of oil not spilled into the Gulf.

Carl Safina spoke with The Atlantic about the book, released on the one-year anniversary of the blowout, and about recent developments that remind us that this story is far from over.

Douglas Gorney: I wanted to start by getting your reaction to a few recent news flashes: “Transocean executives get bonuses, despite massive Gulf spill; company lauds ‘best year in safety.’” And “Transocean to donate safety bonuses to rig victim fund.”

Carl Safina: I hadn't heard the latter. That blunts my former reaction. To say in any un-nuanced public statement that they had their best safety year in history is despicable beyond comment.

Gorney: Here's another: “BP to Restart Deepwater Drilling in Gulf of Mexico; London-based oil giant promised to abide by rules stricter than guidelines set after Deepwater Horizon blast.”

Safina: I think that if we look at the big picture, it seems that for the moment we are completely painted into a corner regarding oil and oil extraction. In the chess game of our energy needs the king is being chased around the board by an increasingly tightening circle of pawns. We basically have very few choices because we have built very few options.

When I was in high school in the early 1970s we knew we were running out of oil; we knew that easy sources were being capped; we knew that diversifying would be much better; we knew that there were terrible dictators and horrible governments that we were enriching who hated us. We knew all that and we did really nothing. We just sat on our hands for three decades. Now we have this increasing desperation to get at much riskier sources of fossil fuels.

When it was easy to punch a hole in the ground and tap oil, the risks were very, very different than drilling into much larger pools under much more pressure in areas where people cannot go to fix something that goes wrong. We have almost literally an inability to deal with the problems that are being caused by things like deepwater drilling—defined as over a mile deep—which we basically have only done in the last decade, but we're doing increasingly because that's where the remaining oil is, because the easy oil is largely tapped.

From the happy-go-lucky days of oil exploration and drilling, when a lot of easy sources were being found and easily managed, we're gotten ourselves into this sort of apocalyptic time. We're willing to destroy almost everything, risk almost anything, and go ahead with techniques for which we have no way of responding to the known problems. And that is truly an addiction in the real sense of the word, an addiction by which people destroy their own bodies to continue to have a supply of something that is killing them.

So why do we have to continue drilling in the Gulf? Why would even I say we can't stop drilling in the Gulf? Because we have no alternatives. Whether or not we drill in the Gulf, or in Alaska, we will continue to wring the last out of anyplace else. It's not a question of, well, if they can't drill in the Gulf they'll go to Nigeria—they're already all over Nigeria, they're all over Libya, they're all over everywhere. And we could have had little or no need for it if we had looked at the facts 30 years ago and proceeded accordingly.

Gorney: Much of the attention after the disaster focused on the blowout-preventer, the mechanism that's supposed to stop an uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas if pressure control systems fail. A just-completed forensic report indicated that the blowout kept the blowout-preventer from working—and that all blowout preventers used in ALL deep water drilling are "fundamentally flawed by design". Does that mean that another Deepwater Horizon-scale disaster is far more likely than we've thought?

Safina: I would think that would make Transocean happy, because they have another party to point to—Cameron International, who made the blowout-preventer. The Cameron people, if I'm getting this right, were quoted in an article I saw in The New York Times as saying the force of the blowout was beyond the specifications of the blowout-preventer. Well, obviously, if that is the last failsafe, it needs to have specifications that are beyond the capacity of any conceivable force of any blowout. And if they are not, then yes, that's a fundamental design flaw that means that the blowout-preventer is a badly misnamed piece of equipment. And, yes, that means the chances of other blowouts happening are higher than we thought. The thinking had been that we won't have a blowout because all these wells have blowout-preventers on them.

The other thing I find quite worrisome is that there are so many abandoned wells with, I believe, no blowout-preventers on top of them. Those things have been have been abandoned over the course of 30 or 40 years. There are thousands of them, they're poorly maintained, in many cases I think poorly mapped—many of the companies that dug them don't exist anymore. Instead of fighting the last war, what's the next thing that might happen that is not on people's radar? The spontaneous blowing-out of a lot of these wells seems to me a possibility because old abandoned wells spontaneously blow out. Occasionally they blow out on land, and there's not really a good reason to think that they're any better under the deep sea.

Gorney: The Obama Administration imposed a moratorium to renew oversight of deepwater wells, and put new, far stricter, regulatory guidelines in place. Yet permits are again being granted to drilling proposals, some with oil spill response plans dated 2009—the year before the disaster. What was done during the four months that moratorium actually lasted? What does "stricter" mean? What lessons were learned?

Safina: I don't know. I think breaking up the Minerals Management Service (MMS) did seem to me to be a good move that would remove some of the conflicting incentives within the bureaucracy. But many of the same individuals are still on the job, so I don't know whether it means a lot. I do think that the blowout itself creates a very strong incentive for a safer approach to procedures on every one of these rigs, because I really don't think that any of the companies wants to incur the billions of dollars that BP and Transocean and a couple of the others will incur for their truly reckless behavior.

Gorney: But it just doesn't seem—in spite of what the government has said—that stricter regulatory oversight actually is being put in place.

Safina: No, it doesn't. I agree with you. I haven't seen anything like that either. And if there is anything I'm not aware of it. There could be some things that would be a radical program, like the companies would have to pay for MMS to be a sort of safety supervisor on all of the rigs—either at all times, or at certain points, like the abandon juncture, for instance [the point at which the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred]. You might have to have, let's say, someone from the government overseeing safety on the rig who had veto authority on every step of the procedure. You can imagine easily that if there was somebody on the rig at that time last year they could have nixed the idea of putting that thick spacer into the drilling fluid, they could have nixed the idea of displacing the well to sea water while there was still some question about a pressure gauge. They could have stopped it and they could have overridden all the pressure the company people felt to hurry up.

Gorney: The portrait you paint of BP is of a culture in which accidents, even disasters, are an accepted cost of doing business, of extracting oil as quickly and expeditiously as possible—even compared to other companies. Have I gotten the wrong impression?

Safina: That's the impression I have as well.

Gorney: Your book is a heartbreaking account of oil-soaked pelicans, turtles, and dolphins. Yet you also write of the Gulf's apparent resiliency, the sargassum grass that's coming back, the apparent health of the dolphins now. You say that the season's respite from fishing may have more than offset the effects of the spill for most fish. One year on, what is the state of marine life in the Gulf?

Safina: It certainly seems as though worst fears did not come to pass as far as the destruction of marine life and the destruction of viability of marine life. Now, there has not enough time to know whether the ability of fish, let's say, to reproduce is going to going to be compromised, or to what extent it might be. But it certainly is interesting to note that the massive die-offs that people feared did not seem to happen.

There still could be some surprises—for instance, there were no documented mass die-offs of dolphins in the Gulf last year. But this spring there was a greatly elevated die-off of newborn dolphins. Nobody knows why that is, and it's not unprecedented. It could have to do with the oil, and it might have nothing to do with the oil. We might see, for instance, that all the fish seem to survive but they have trouble breeding this year. That's not outside the realm of possibility.

But I don't expect it. I don't expect that, given the fact that the oil has been getting diluted, and weathering and being metabolized by microbes, that the future effects will be worse than the acute effects were. In a much more devastating spill, the Exxon Valdez, you had incredibly severe acute effects and then very, very long-term chronic effects. But it just doesn't seem like you would expect where the acute effects were a lot less than anybody expected, that the long-term effects would be a lot worse.

Gorney: You write that "as Bush blew 9/11's possibilities, Obama is blowing this blowout." In light of the President's recent "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future," what lessons has he learned from the disaster, one year on, and how has he exploited them?

Safina: I'm a little bit less certain about my answer to that question. What Obama has learned is of course subject to being thwarted by the Congress. He seems always to be cautious about appearing too strident and trying to throw lots of bones to the opposition, to quietly peddle a wiser, longer-term vision. I personally wish he wouldn't do that. The people who voted him in voted him in because we—I'll say we—were really sickened by what had preceded him and what the Republicans were doing in Congress and in the White House, and we really wanted big, bold change, the kind of change that candidate Obama was talking about. I think we still want that, and his kind of soft-peddling the boldness and the change only makes the people who hate him hate him more, and the people who support him support him less.

I'm still looking for a fight out in the open. I wish he would continue to articulate a very clear vision about moving forward—about building the energy infrastructure, the smart grid that we would need, the new energy technologies that we would need, and creating an environment for new investors that would be much more conducive—so that American companies are not going to Germany and China to do this work.

So I'm a little less sure of what my answer is to what he has learned. I would rather that he would come out and tell us. I suspect that he knows and thinks all the right things, but his approach to the politics makes him look more hesitant, and then the actual politics make him a lot less able to implement his vision. But he's not articulating a clear vision that at least half the country, who would be inclined to rally around him, can rally around.

Gorney: Engineering projects have been cutting Gulf wetlands off from sediment brought by the Mississippi River, making them vulnerable to increasingly frequent extreme weather events, like hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The marshes were well on its way to vanishing by 2050 with or without Deepwater Horizon. But why do you then write that BP may have ended up helping the marshes with the Deepwater Horizon disaster?

Safina: The marshes have been sliced to bits mainly to service the oil industry. And yet there has been no way to squeeze money out of the oil industry to stop that, reverse it or reengineer the upstream flood control that would restore that natural maintenance of the marshes. Those marshes a big part of the reason why the region produces more seafood than any other region of the country outside of Alaska. It's not just that we like marshes—it's that the marshes are also extremely important drivers of the economics there that everyone down there is so concerned about. It's why Congressmen were crying over the idea that the oil would destroy "America's Wetland". But there has been no way to get money out of the oil industry to restore or help maintain the marshes that the oil industry has, for 40 years, been helping to shred.

So if a lot of the damage money [from BP] can be a way of getting oil money into marsh restoration, on balance that would help the marshes much more than the actual oil from that one blowout hurt the marshes.

To reiterate, everybody was concerned that the marshes were going to be killed by the oil from the blowout. I don't think that was ever likely, unless the blowout kept going on for years and years and years and nobody could ever shut it off. But it really wasn't a likely scenario concerned were never going to be killed by the blowout. Meanwhile, with or without the blowout, the marshes are disappearing and the likely scenario they'll be essentially gone in 20 to 25 years. So the blowout focused more attention on the marshes, and that's a good thing. But the big problem existed before the blowout and continues.

Gorney: Given the anger and passion you put into your narrative, I was very surprised when you wrote, "It's a relatively small amount of oil in a big could have been a lot worse." You say that the worst environmental disaster in history isn't the oil that got away, the real catastrophe is the oil we don't spill." Tell me why.

Safina: The much bigger problem is the oil that we actually burn, as intended. That is truly a global catastrophe for the environment. Because while spills will eventually get diluted and stop causing harm, the carbon dioxide from burning oil and coal and gas gets more and more concentrated all the time, accelerating the destabilization of the heat balance of the planet and causing the ocean to become more acidic. This is already killing oysters in commercial hatcheries, making corals grow slower, making corals grow more brittle, and that will, within this century, start to dissolve the corals and the shellfish of the ocean. That is absolutely an utter catastrophe that completely dwarfs the effects of the even the worst blowout that we'd ever have.