Wildlife Center Response to Report of Gulf Oil Spill Commission

In May of 2010, just a month after the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform and subsequent oil well blowout that devastated much of the coastline and waters of the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama appointed the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.  Even as millions of barrels of oil continued to gush into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the President charged the commission with investigating the circumstances which led up to the disaster and instructed them to recommend any changes in law, regulation, policy or procedures which were needed to prevent such a disaster from happening again.  Following seven months of hearings and investigation, the Commission recently issued its final report, titled Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling.  In this report, the Commission outlined a long litany of government and industry failings.  They concluded that the entire system of oversight and regulation of offshore oil exploration and development was largely ineffective, and that unless the government and the industry dramatically restructure and redirect their efforts to protect workers’ safety and the environment, a repeat of such a disaster is not only possible, but probable. Excerpts from the commission report The Commission’s report has confirmed many of the concerns voiced by The Wildlife Center of Virginia during the midst of the unprecedented environmental disaster.  Ed Clark, President and Co-founder of The Wildlife Center of Virginia, made two trips to the Gulf State last summer, during the midst of the disaster and the clean-up.   Clark found the government and the oil industry were totally unprepared to respond to an event of the magnitude of the BP spill, and the environment is paying the price.  While the Commission report echoes and reiterates many of his observations, Clark criticized the Commission’s report for failing to address what he calls “the shamefully inadequate response of the federal government to the plight of oiled wildlife.”

Statement of Edward E. Clark, Jr. President and Co-Founder, The Wildlife Center of Virginia January 2011  

In June of last year, I made the first of two trips to Gulf States, as part of an interdisciplinary team sent to assess the potential impacts of the spill and evaluate the government’s response.   What I found were overt government and industry efforts to keep our team, the media, and the public as far away from the impact areas as possible.  They seemed to be much more concerned about preventing us from seeing the extent of the damage than about cleaning it up or limiting the environmental impacts. 

At every turn, the Incident Command threw up roadblocks in our path.  We experienced everything from unexplained revocation of our flight clearance moments before our helicopter was to carry us over the oiled beaches to harassment by police when we took photos of oil booms and debris we encountered as we walked on public beaches.  I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist, but it was clear that BP and the government were trying to hide the damage done by this spill and cover up the inadequacy of their collective response. 

My greatest frustration with the government’s response to the spill was the outright prohibition on non-governmental wildlife professionals entering the impact area to help with the rescue and recovery of oiled wildlife.  While I can understand how the federal resource management agencies  and the Unified Incident Command might have felt overwhelmed with the enormity of the job in front of them, I cannot understand how they could completely reject offers of help from highly qualified and experienced wildlife care professionals. 

I am incredulous that tens of thousands of animals died because the federal government seemed to be more concerned about controlling the press and limiting public scrutiny than about locating and recovering the countless wild creatures that were affected by this disaster. Unfortunately, the Commission report fails to even mention this issue, except in the most oblique ways.

Part of my concern about the exclusion of private sector wildlife and environmental experts from the impact area was that the government had very little data on the condition and abundance of wildlife prior to the arrival of the oil.  There were not enough qualified people in the field to observe and document the impacts as the oil arrived in previously unaffected areas.  Therefore the determination of both short-term and long-term impacts of the spill will be nearly impossible. 

If we don’t know what we’ve got prior to the spill, we’ll never be able to say what we’ve lost because of it. 

One of the implications of this collective lack of information is that it may now be impossible to get BP to pay for the damage done to wildlife and fisheries.  The Natural Resources Damage Recover Act says that “the responsible party” (BP and its partners) is required to pay for all environmental damage which results from an event such as this oil spill; however, it’s up to the government to assess and document the extent of damage to natural resources and then prove that the damage is a direct result of the spill.  Neither the US Fish and Wildlife Service nor the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal trustees of wildlife and marine resources, respectively, have anything approaching good baseline information about the condition of the Gulf coastal and marine environment prior to the spill.  This means that there is nothing against which to measure the post-spill condition of either the marine or terrestrial environment, including wildlife and critical habitat.   As a result, BP is likely to get away without paying for much, if not most, of the environmental damage caused by their oil spill.   That is simply outrageous! I fear that few lessons have been learned from this experience, at least where wildlife is concerned.  I worry that the extent of the impacts will never be known.   The government has released their figures on wildlife damage, pointing out that more than 8,000 birds, turtles, and other species “were recovered” during the spill.  They want us to believe that this is the full extent of the damage, but that is utterly ridiculous. Any reasonable review of the situation shows just how ridiculous it is. Consider this -- following the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, nearly a quarter of a million oiled birds were recovered and inventoried.  The BP spill was 208 million gallons, nearly twenty times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill.  The Gulf is a far more biologically diverse area than is Prince William Sound.   How can the government really expect us to just swallow the claim that with twenty times more oil we only had 3.5 percent the number of oiled animals?  If it were not so deadly serious, it would be laughable.  To compound this tragedy, we have lost an opportunity to study the wildlife and fisheries impacts of a spill, as it is happening.  The federal government’s cloak of secrecy meant that scientists and researchers could not get to most of those oiled animals in a timely manner;  there was no way to collect samples, conduct studies, or learn about the effects of this oil on the birds, reptiles, fish, and other living creatures of the region.   These untold thousands of animals have simply died in vain.  It just breaks my heart to think about it. The Commission’s report and recommendations may be our last chance to salvage any shred of good from what was, by all accounts, the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.   I can only hope that the opportunity will not be lost in the morass of political gamesmanship that typically surrounds discussions of government oversight of the oil industry.   Certainly, all of us who drive cars or consume the energy and products extracted from petroleum share some ownership of the risks associated with exploration and development, but there must be limits to how big a risk we can accept.  Certainly, we cannot allow our precious environment to continue to be vulnerable to the careless arrogance and incompetence that led up to the BP disaster.  If the loss of wildlife can shock us into action, perhaps it will not all have been for naught.