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Define “Adequate” … Two Years After Deepwater Horizon

Posted On April 20, 2012 by

Boom and skimmers line the coast at Grand Isle, La., where workers clean up BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Credit: Cheryl Gerber

To mark the two-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post about the regulatory changes that still need to be made if we hope to avoid future tragedies like this one. I think one of the major problems with these regulations is an issue of semantics. In short, the oil industry, the Department of the Interior and the American people all have different definitions of the word “adequate.” Here’s an excerpt:

There is a fundamental disconnect here, and it suggests that we will repeat — rather than learn from — crucial mistakes that led up to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. When the oil industry and the Interior Department talk about “adequate spill response capacity,” they really mean the ability to mobilize oil containment and removal equipment and to make a substantial effort to get oil out of the water or off the shoreline.

But when a major oil spill occurs, the people who are in the path of the spill, as well as most of the rest of us, expect that “adequate spill response capacity” means the ability to contain and remove a large percentage of the spill — not just a good faith effort that cleans up a relatively small portion of the discharged oil.


Case in point: After both the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters, only about 8 percent of the spilled oil was recovered or burned at the surface. Even if we include the massive on-shore effort after the Exxon Valdez disaster, that number only increases to 14 percent. Fourteen percent! That’s hardly “adequate” in my opinion.

Clearly, our expectations do not align, which makes it all the more important that we have effective, redundant prevention measures in place. As I wrote in Huffington Post, “we’ve seen the movie more than once, and it’s time to write a different ending.”