Seven years ago this month, an oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico operated by BP exploded, creating one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recorded history. For a time, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill symbolized corporate greed as represented by unchecked oil and gas development. It was a pivotal moment, presenting an opportunity to reexamine industrialized society’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for polluting fossil fuels—are they really worth the costly and destructive spills, threats to coastal communities, imperiled wildlife and other collateral damage?
Meanwhile, another oil and gas platform, far less infamous, but potentially dangerous nonetheless, operated 150 miles from New Orleans off the coast of Louisiana in a part of the Gulf known as “Hurricane Alley.” At the time, one of the world’s deepest oil and gas platforms, it was also operated by BP. Its name was Atlantis.
A “Ticking Time Bomb”
A year earlier, a former BP contractor-turned whistleblower named Ken Abbott approached Food & Water Watch to help him expose the possible catastrophe awaiting Atlantis. The problem? Close to 90 percent of the facility’s 7,176 operating documents had not been approved by an engineer. If something were to go wrong on Atlantis, it could be difficult to fix due to the fact that these critical documents were incomplete, and the consequences could be devastating.
For more than a year before the Horizon explosion, Food & Water Watch had pressed the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement to shutter Atlantis until it could be proven safe to operate. These efforts convinced 19 members of Congress to sign on to a letter requesting an investigation. Then, the Deepwater Horizon explosion infused the campaign with new urgency. We quickly recognized that Horizon and Atlantis shared some of the same problems, and moved to warn the public that another disaster could be imminent.
It wasn’t difficult to raise awareness of the Atlantis campaign given the public conversation around Horizon. Reporters and producers started calling, and didn’t stop for several weeks. 60 Minutes dedicated a large portion of its Deepwater Horizon disaster coverage to the Atlantis facility, and one of our lawyers appeared on Geraldo Rivera’s show on Fox News and Anderson Cooper’s on CNN.
Congressional Oversight Heats Up
As the spotlight on the platform intensified, we renewed our efforts to engage members of Congress, working to hold the Department of the Interior accountable and prevent this looming disaster. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) hosted a briefing about the platform, and 26 members of Congress signed on a letter urging the Department of the Interior to investigate the matter thoroughly.
Thanks to these efforts, Ken Abbott testified before Congress and was also interviewed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which finally investigated Abbott’s claims. The agency’s report concluded that BP’s database for Atlantis’s operation documents was disorganized and not adequate for handling a large volume of documents and that BP violated the law by failing to submit required revisions, but it marginalized these problems and shifted the blame to BP contractors.
Nevertheless, we pressed on, determined that Atlantis was unsafe and that the Interior Department was going to undue lengths to protect BP.
Independent Investigators Back Up Abbott’s Claims
The results of a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request revealed a separate investigation by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). This one revealed that a group of engineers intimately involved in the government’s original investigation had strongly disagreed with the final conclusion of the original report. In fact, the structural engineers, one of whom would later become one of the agency’s chief departmental heads, wrote a separate report that documented this disagreement.
It determined that the platform and its subsea equipment were likely unsafe and required further investigation. It also found that BP's drawings of the platform components, including the subsea components, violated regulations. This news once again cast doubt on Atlantis’s safety and on the integrity of BSEE’s investigation. Indeed, the OIG report revealed that the original lead investigator said he planned on “cutting the legs out from under” a lawsuit filed by Ken Abbott. He also indicated that he was conducting the investigation as a “partner of BP.”
With the help of independent counsel and Earth Justice, Food & Water Watch joined Ken Abbott in his lawsuit. After a number of judges recused themselves, ostensibly because of conflicts of interest, the case landed on the desk of Judge Lynn Hughes.
Unfortunately, Judge Hughes sided with BP. Notwithstanding that Abbott and Food & Water Watch submitted 5,000 of pages of evidence to the court, Hughes dismissed the case, issuing a scant, ten-page decision, with few legal citations in an opinion that reads much more like a press release than a thoughtful piece of federal jurisprudence. Even when presented with the new evidence of the dangers highlighted in the alternative engineers’ report, Hughes issued a one-sentence ruling denying any further consideration.
Courts Continue to Favor BP
Sadly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit recently affirmed the lower court’s decision. The court found solace in the fact that the agency that was supposed to protect the public never suspended the Atlantis’s operation. Moreover, Food & Water Watch’s case was dismissed for procedural reasons: In the court’s view, the organization did not adequately demonstrate that its members would suffer an injury from an oil spill.
Of course, the court completely overlooked the OIG report detailing the investigating agency’s corruption, while apparently forgetting the real harm that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to inflict on the people of the Gulf Coast.
Although the Atlantis facility continues to operate, its overall safety remains in doubt. In light of the devastation caused by the Horizon Deepwater disaster, the federal government failed its moral duty to ensure that Atlantis would not also endanger the Gulf of Mexico or Gulf Coast communities.
We are grateful to members of Congress such as Rep. Grijalva for helping shed light on the urgency of the issue, and to the engineers at the Department of the Interior who backed up Abbott’s initial findings. In part because of the spotlight shed on the Atlantis platform, the agency now requires that new platforms have production safety systems that are designed, reviewed and stamped by professional engineers. Certain as-built drawings must also be submitted to the agency.
While we can take some solace in these developments, regulatory agencies must remail vigilant as well. As the Trump administration moves to gut the EPA and gives free reign to oil and gas companies to extract every last drop of fossil fuels from the planet, the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the efforts to shutter the Atlantis facility almost seem like forgotten warnings at this point. Given the industry’s safety record, there will surely be more accidents to come—perhaps even at the Atlantis facility—the problems with its operating documents were never resolved, after all. One thing is certain however: we ignore these warnings at our own peril.