This is Part 2 of a paper written following the BP Oil Spill in 2010 regarding US offshore safety. In this chapter, we take a look at the history of offshore drilling in the United States and the history of some past offshore drilling disasters. 

First of all, it is valuable to take a look the United States’ own history with offshore disasters. US offshore drilling began in 1887, with the first offshore platform drilled off the cost of California. The first out-of-sight of land platform was drilled in 1947. As land petroleum resources began to decline, more and more companies began to look offshore for energy resources.

The first significant incident occurred in 1969 on Union Oil’s Platform A in Santa Barbara. A blowout on the platform caused the spill of more than 3 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, resulting in devastating environmental consequences. Thousands of sea birds and marine animals were killed, including dolphins, sea lions, and elephant seals. In addition, miles and miles of the beach were covered with oil. This incident, alongside the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, catalyzed the birth of the United States Environmental movement. Since the incident, California has placed a ban on any new offshore drilling projects in state waters; this moratorium exists to the present day. In addition, this incident ushered in a nationwide moratorium on most East and West coast offshore drilling that persisted until early 2010.

In June 1979, the Mexican national oil company Pemex suffered a blowout at the Iztoc I exploratory well, about 1000 km from the Texas coast. Ultimately, over 3.3 million barrels of oil were leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. With many parallels to Deepwater Horizon, the spill hurt the fishing industry and depleted the region’s wildlife. However, the incident remained outside of the United States’ regulatory jurisdiction, and neither country took any significant action.

Another incident of note is the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, during which a tanker spilled up to 11 million gallons of crude oil with similarly devastating environmental consequences. While this incident was not directly related to offshore drilling, it is important to realize its policy impact in shaping public opinion against drilling, particularly in the Arctic.

While there have been some previous incidents prior to Deepwater Horizon, they all failed to have much regulatory impact on US policy. Time and time again, instead of developing better regulations and fixing the problem, the temporary US solution has always been to simply prohibit offshore drilling. The recent Deepwater Horizon incident demonstrates conclusively that this solution is no longer acceptable.

In April 2010, the blowout, and subsequent explosion of the BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killed 11 workers aboard the rig. Even more significantly, the subsequent sinking of the rig caused an oil spill that ranks among the greatest of environmental disasters of all time; ultimately, over 185 million gallons of crude oil were leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating both wildlife and the occupations of thousands of Americans.

Following this spill, both Congress and the President have initiated numerous studies to discover just exactly how a disaster of this magnitude was allowed to happen. In late August, BP released internal findings, demonstrating that significant human and institutional errors were responsible for the spill. It has become apparent that a disaster of this magnitude demonstrates a significant gap in the current regulatory system that the nation uses to regulate offshore drilling activity.

As we look to identify solutions and improvements to our offshore drilling policy, it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes and experience of other nations across the globe. In particular, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Canada all have offshore drilling issues of a very similar nature to those of the United States. All three of these nations have also dealt with similar offshore drilling disasters, of equal or greater proportions. When drafting new and improved offshore drilling regulation, there is a lot that the United States can learn from the disasters and subsequent regulation enacted in other nations.