How Deepwater Horizon shaped SELC’s Atlantic drilling opposition

Catherine Wannamaker remembers that she was incredulous at what the government was proposing back in April, 2010.

As the damaged wellhead drilled by Deepwater Horizon gushed untold amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Bureau of Ocean Energy management was business as usual.

“We learned just days after the spill, while oil was still flowing, that the government was going forward with lease sales,” said Wannamaker, a senior SELC attorney, “while it was still unable to control the spewing Macondo well.”

The BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe became the worst oil spill in American history. With the 10th anniversary approaching on April 20, SELC senior attorneys Wannamaker and Sierra Weaver shared how working on cases related to Deepwater Horizon have shaped the strategies SELC and its partners are using to protect the Atlantic Ocean.

“One of the things we learned working in the Gulf during the course of a spill is that it's very difficult to stop offshore drilling in an area when it's been established for 30 years,” Wannamaker said.

Weaver added: “The laws that govern offshore drilling are fundamentally designed to keep that process moving forward.”

One of the things we learned working in the Gulf during the course of a spill is that it's very difficult to stop offshore drilling in an area when it's been established for 30 years.”

—Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker

In 2010, SELC teamed with Defenders of Wildlife -- where Weaver worked before later joining SELC -- to file the first federal lawsuit after the spill. The goal, the attorneys said, was to put a pause on drilling while the spill was wreaking havoc on Gulf Coast communities.

But, Wannamaker said, the legal work hit roadblocks. Once oil drilling had taken root, she and Weaver discovered that avenues to slow it dwindled.

“We had always been focused on stopping new offshore drilling in the Atlantic,” Wannamaker said. “But when we worked in the Gulf, we realized just how hard it was to stop lease sales that had been on the books for years.”

That notion has shaped SELC’s legal defense of the Atlantic Ocean, Weaver said.

“This is our chance to save the Atlantic,” Weaver said. “We need to stop it before it starts. We need to make sure that these communities are never facing the type of damage and destruction that the Gulf of Mexico faced. That was enough of a tragedy. We need to learn lessons from that and not repeat it.”

The Deepwater Horizon disaster on April 20, 2010, eventually unleashed roughly 200 million gallons of oil that devastated the beaches, coastal marshes and economies of Gulf Coast states.

This is our chance to save the Atlantic. We need to stop it before it starts. We need to make sure that these communities are never facing the type of damage and destruction that the Gulf of Mexico faced.”

—Senior Attorney Sierra Weaver

SELC researcher Melissa Whaling spent the months ahead of the anniversary looking into the latest studies on the aftermath. Her research shows:

  • The spatial extent of the spill was larger than initially thought, perhaps 30 percent larger.
  • More than 25,000 jobs were lost because of the spill, along with $700 million in wages.
  • In addition to the 11 rig workers who perished, tens of thousands of people have become ill or died from their work to clean up the spill.

Numbers like those have galvanized more than 250 coastal communities and the governors of all 14 Atlantic states to lodge official protests to the Trump administration’s efforts to open East Coast waters to petroleum companies.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a law this year to ban oil-drilling infrastructure from the coast and from the state’s offshore waters. South Carolina lawmakers last year took the same step, although the block was only for one year. They are working during this session to make the ban permanent.

The United States House of Representatives, led by freshman Congressman Joe Cunningham from Charleston, South Carolina, has also banned offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The Senate has not yet considered that bill.

But despite the sea change in opinion since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Trump administration still appears committed to pursuing oil in the Atlantic.

Worse, Weaver says, the administration is also tossing out safety rules put in place after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe because the drilling industry convinced President Trump the rules were too onerous. SELC is one of several organizations suing to reinstate the rules.

Both Wannamaker and Weaver say their years-long uphill battles in the courts after the Deepwater Horizon reveal how challenging it would be to reign in Atlantic drilling if the industry gets a foothold. And that’s why they are working so diligently to prevent it.

“The government was very reluctant to slow that down once it started, which I think helped us realize even more how important it was to stop this in the Atlantic before it ever begins,” Weaver said. “Now is our time to save these special places.”

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