The Gulf Oil Spill: A Catastrophe Felt Around the World

May 27, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon blew up. Once it became clear that oil continued to gush from the well blowout, my thoughts immediately turned to the communities along the Gulf of Mexico. Many people along the Gulf Coast gain their livelihoods from fishing and tourism. The rich communities of wildlife - birds, fish, and whales - depend on the Gulf Coast. All of these communities are at risk from the spill.

The impacts of the spill are likely to linger for decades. Now that oil has spilled into the Gulf Coast's marshes and wetlands, no good means exist for cleaning it up. Nature will have to repair itself. The fisheries and other wildlife of the Gulf Coast will also likely feel the impacts for decades.

Just as in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, we will undoubtedly learn a lot of lessons from this blowout and oil spill. Here are eight initial lessons that I think we are learning:

1.It is dangerous to place too much trust in large corporations to "self-regulate." The U.S. government did not ask BP to prepare a full environmental impact review, instead issuing a "waiver."

2.We need to prepare for all contingencies. BP did not think a blowout like this was likely, so they didn't know how to stop the blowout. They have had to engineer approaches as they go along, which has led to far greater damage.

3.We need independent government regulators who are not tied to the industry. President Obama has now recognized the "cozy relationship" between regulators and industry. This relationship allowed BP to cut corners as they were drilling the well, which likely led to the blowout.

4.Oil producers need to carry full financial responsibility for their pollution. The U.S. Congress is trying to raise liability limits, since these limits are capped at $75 million, even though the damage from the spill will be far, far greater.

5.We need an active non-governmental sector that watchdogs government agencies and companies. Although many had warned about a culture of corruption within Minerals Management Service, this culture has not changed fast enough.

6.Oil companies are moving into more and more remote places to drill for oil. This is why BP is drilling at more than 5,000 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, which creates enormous technological challenges. This is why Shell and other oil companies are trying to drill for oil in the Arctic and Russia's Sea of Okhotsk, despite the immense challenges found there.

7.Our technological advances to drill for oil have advanced greatly, while we have not advanced our technologies to prevent oil spills and to clean them up afterwards. BP has shown that there is no good way to clean up a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, there is no good way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic.

8.The best way to prevent these disasters from occurring in the future is to get off our addiction to oil.

The repercussions of the Gulf of Mexico spill will be felt far beyond the Gulf itself. Since the spill, several of Pacific Environment's programs have leapt into action. Our Alaska Program is working with indigenous villages in Alaska's Arctic to stop Shell's proposed exploratory drilling, which is supposed to start in just over a month. The similarities between Shell's proposed drilling and the BP tragedy in the Gulf are eerie. Shell was also given a waiver because the potential for a blowout was deemed to be minimal. Yet in the Arctic, there is no way to clean up an oil spill in ice conditions. We are working with our partners in the Alaska Native and environmental communities to halt Shell's plans until we understand why the Gulf of Mexico spill occurred and to make sure it won't be repeated. You can help by calling the White House at 202-456-1111 and asking them to halt Shell's plans. We need a time-out for the Arctic.