Special Reports

Success at containing earlier spills led to culture of complacency

WASHINGTON — After three months of constant gushing, BP’s blown-out well has polluted the Gulf of Mexico with more than 80 percent of the total volume of all recorded U.S. oil spills in the last 36 years.

Before the BP spill, a McClatchy Newspapers analysis of Coast Guard data found, the oil industry and other handlers of crude oil had made substantial progress in cutting the frequency and size of spills.

Yet experts say that this success helped produce the Gulf spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. A culture of complacency led industry officials, regulatory agencies and policymakers to control oil spills but not to anticipate a larger, inevitable catastrophe, the experts said.

Their successes encouraged the industry and government to become less vigilant, said Jack Harrald, who served in the Coast Guard for 24 years and is a research professor at Virginia Tech’s Center for Technology, Security and Policy.

Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, Dirk Kempthorne, the Bush administration interior secretary from 2006 until January 2009, reflected that assessment. No one, he said, ever raised concerns that “an oil spill of this magnitude could occur.”

“I recall being pointedly asked during congressional hearings why Interior wasn’t doing more to expand offshore energy development, not less,” he said.

A comparison of the BP spill with the historical record is illustrative. McClatchy’s analysis found:

n The Deepwater Horizon spill is more than 13 times as large as the previous 32 years of recorded oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico combined.

n More oil spilled into the Gulf from the BP well during a nine-day span than the total volume of all U.S. oil spills in any single year since 1973.

n The Deepwater Horizon figure — more than 200 million gallons — is roughly equivalent to the amount of oil that spilled into waters around the U.S. from 1973 through 1989, a period that saw more than 129,000 spills.

n The Coast Guard data indicate that the volume of small and large spills has declined steadily across the decades. For instance, the number of spills between 1 and 100 gallons decreased by almost 77 percent from 1973 to 2004. Spills larger than 100,000 gallons dropped by 89 percent during the same period.

While engineers and oil experts such as Harrald said the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill didn’t surprise them, others involved in the disaster are shocked.

“It’s not something that’s concerning; it’s something that’s frightening,” said Steve Yerrid, a lawyer whom Florida Gov. Charlie Crist tapped to assemble a top legal team that will advise the state in regard to BP.

Harrald said the growing standard of care and awareness over the decades explained the drop in the volume of oil spills. As drillers and regulators rode that steady wave of success, however, a presumptuous, overconfident attitude among all parties washed ashore.

While devastating events such as the spill from Mexico’s Ixtoc 1 well in the Gulf’s Bay of Campeche in June 1979 galvanized attention, concern then quickly faded, experts said.

“We go through these waves — there’s complacency afterward and they get lax pretty much across the board — until we have an accident,” said Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist-ecologist at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi who’s studied oil spills for 35 years.

A microcosm of this ebb and flow of environmental management is evident in the fluctuating demand for classes at the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M, which was created in 1977. After the Ixtoc spill, Tunnell said, classes filled quickly. New technology developed soon thereafter, however, and “everybody waned again” until the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, Tunnell added.

Perspective also plays a role.

“One thing I have found absent from the narrative: Oil seeps are naturally occurring events,” said Robert Frodeman, an ecological ethicist and the director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas. “This happens every day, all over the world. It doesn’t necessarily excuse what BP has done, but it does put a different context.”