On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 of its workers and initiating a massive oil disaster that claimed the lives of thousands of birds, sea turtles, marine mammals and other wildlife. In a conversation with Jamie Rappaport Clark, we look back at one of the worst environmental disasters of our time: an 87-day nightmare as an estimated 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.
What first went through your mind when you heard about the BP oil spill?
As reports came in of an explosion on an oil rig, everyone’s thoughts turned immediately towards those who lost their lives and their families. There was also a brief moment when I really hoped that maybe there wouldn’t be any oil spilling into the Gulf. The memory of the Exxon Valdez still hadn’t faded from my mind, and I worried, waiting to hear what the expected toll would be to the ecosystem and all the amazing wildlife that depend on the Gulf region.
In May and June of 2010, you went to the Gulf to see firsthand how the ecosystem was faring in the face of this. What did you see?
We flew to the Gulf and visited Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, and Bird Island in Barataria Bay, Louisiana to get a sense of what we were up against. I saw clumps of oil covering the water and the booms that were placed to hopefully keep oil away from the pelican rookeries, but there were also pelicans coated in oil, fish floating on the water surface and oiled sea turtles that were clearly struggling. It was devastating. It was nesting season for pelicans and sea turtles, and with so many barrier islands serving as prime habitat, the damage was obvious. And yet, I could tell that there was more under the surface.
How was Defenders involved after the spill?
Defenders put everything we had into efforts to learn from this disaster and prevent something like this from happening again. We conducted long-term seabird surveys, hosted training workshops to help countries in the Caribbean and Mexico anticipate and prepare for the damage an oil spill could cause to their migratory bird populations , analyzed the impacts to deep sea ecosystems, worked with the Restoration Task Force and engaged in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, and mobilized tens of thousands of our members and supporters to support offshore drilling regulations and bans. Much of this work continues to this day, as we continue to have to fight against oil and gas drilling in public lands and waters.
The realization of the devastating impacts of the spill coupled with our desire to help prevent future catastrophes compelled us to launch a brand new program focusing on renewable energy and need for the country to shift from an overreliance of fossil fuels to a more sustainable future powered by sun, wind and other renewable sources.
What were some of the lasting impacts of the spill? What do ecological communities look like today?
Ten years on, the Gulf is still feeling the effects of the BP oil spill. Human communities that relied on recreation, fishing, and a clean environment are still struggling. People lost livelihoods, homes, health and saw the ecosystem that they loved ruined. Remnants of that still remain.
In April of 2010, the slick of oil on the water’s surface could be seen from space. Now, the surface may appear clean, but there is still oil on the ocean floor and wildlife populations have not recovered. More than 1 million birds, at least 1,000 bottle-nosed dolphins and up to 170,000 sea turtles were killed. Populations of whales, fish, and invertebrates were immediately decimated, and reproduction slowed or failed entirely for years afterwards. Oil damaged thousands of miles of coastline that hundreds of bird species depend on for nesting and migratory stopover habitat. Without healthy water containing oxygen and nutrients, the phytoplankton and zooplankton that form the base of the entire food web cannot grow and biodiversity, especially closest to the site of the explosion, has suffered greatly. The BP spill’s effects were profound and long-lasting in every natural system they touched, whether on land or in the water.
Is there legislation prevent something like this from happening again? Were lessons learned from the explosion, spill and response?
Unfortunately, not nearly as much as should have occurred. There were targeted attempts to improve safety during the Obama presidency, but the Trump administration has eviscerated the protections of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, moved to expand offshore drilling and rolled back offshore drilling safety rules implemented in the wake of the BP oil spill. The loss of lives due to the Trump administration’s rollback of safety measures would be inexcusable.
Defenders is supporting the Migratory Bird Protection Act, H.R. 5552, legislation that aims to restore protections for birds and avoid preventable deaths.
We might never know exactly how much damage this spill caused to the ecosystem of the Gulf, and it is imperative that we prevent the potential for another disaster like this one. Instead of rushing to expand oil and gas drilling offshore and on public lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we need to protect these places and the wildlife they support.
Where do you see Defenders engaging on issues of coastal resilience, offshore oil and gas, and marine wildlife in the future?
On offshore oil and gas leasing, we are challenging the reckless efforts by the Trump administration to explore and open coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, from the Arctic to the mid-Atlantic. And this includes calling for an end to seismic testing. Defenders is also pushing for a more rapid transition to green renewable energy, including wind and solar. Our renewable energy team works to make sure that renewable sources, including offshore wind, is wildlife-friendly and smart from the start.
If we look a little broader at nationwide marine and coastal challenges, as an organization, Defenders is concerned about the many vulnerable species – right whales, sea otters, orcas, beluga whales, sea turtles, migratory birds and so many others – that depend on healthy habitat and coasts. Facing rising waters and habitat loss, the storm-battered coasts are truly on the front lines against the increasing threats of human development and climate change. We’d like to increase our coastal focus on the wildlife and wild places that are becoming ever-more vulnerable.
Another marine and coastal challenge that the U.S. is facing includes protecting and conserving National Wildlife Refuges, National Marine Sanctuaries, and Marine National Monuments. Defenders is working with its partners to protect the legal status and biological integrity of the millions of acres of coastal and deep ocean waters included in our national refuge system and marine sanctuaries, from the marshes and lagoons surrounding Pelican Island – our first National Wildlife Refuge – to the coral atolls of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the deep Pacific Ocean.