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Sea Change

I'd Like My Life Back

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burned on April 21, 2010.
U.S. Coast Guard
Getty Images
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burned on April 21, 2010.

On April 20th, 2010, out in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded. The oil spill that followed is still considered the largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States. Today, we are looking at the impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster 13 years later. We hear about the ongoing health effects on people who helped clean up the oil spill and ask, has the broken system that led to this avoidable disaster been fixed?

We speak with investigative reporter Sara Sneath (@SaraSneath) about her reporting on the health impacts on spill cleanup workers, and then we hear an interview with Sheree Kerner, whose husband, Frank Stuart, died after exposure to toxins during the cleanup. She now advocates for regulation changes. And we interview Kevin Sligh, the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, about whether the broken system has been fixed and what is being done to prevent another disaster.

Produced and hosted by Carlyle Calhoun and Sara Sneath.

Our managing producer is Carlyle Calhoun. Editing help was provided by Rosemary Westwood, Halle Parker, and Garrett Hazelwood. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti.

Sea Change is a production of WWNO and WRKF. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.



“The gusher unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico continues to spew crude oil”
"What happened on the Deepwater Horizon, this was clearly a man made incident

Carlyle: On April 20th, 2010 out in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded. The oil spill that followed is still considered the largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States.

I’m Carlyle Calhoun. And I’m here with Sara Sneath who’s an investigative reporter. She’s been reporting on the aftermath of the BP disaster for years.

So Sara, help us remember what happened about 13 years ago.

Sara: Ok, let’s start with where this all was happening–which was about 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling an exploratory well owned by BP called the Macondo. When this well was created, it was the deepest well ever drilled.

Carlyle: And on April 20, there were some big wig execs visiting the platform.

Sara: Yep, they were actually celebrating. There had been all kinds of issues with this well which had caused expensive delays, but finally, today was the day the Macondo well would be capped temporarily, and the rig could then move on to drill somewhere else. This was about to be another safe and profitable mission.

Carlyle: But of course, that didn’t happen.

At around 9:45 that night, gas from the well rushed up the drill pipe into the rig, spreading across the rig’s floor. Then boom. Explosion.

Sara: There was mass confusion. Flames lept in the air. The crew started evacuating. Several people jumped from about 6 stories high..

Carlyle: But some of the crew didn’t make it off alive. 11 workers were killed that day. And 2 days later, the Deepwater Horizon sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Sara: For 87 days, oil gushed into the Gulf, spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil. Scientists estimate that 167,000 sea turtles were killed. So were millions and millions of oysters and fish. More than 1000 dolphins died, and so did more than a million coastal birds. Oil washed up on shorelines from Texas to Florida.

Sara: And people came to the rescue. More than 33,000 people worked to clean up the Gulf coast.

Archival of President Obama:
"Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

Carlyle: This is Sea Change. Today, we are looking at the impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster 13 years later. We hear about the ongoing health effects on people who helped clean up the oil spill and ask, has the broken system that led to this avoidable disaster been fixed?



Tony Hayward:
"Since I became CEO we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve made major changes.

Carlyle: Tony Hayward had taken over as CEO of BP a few years earlier.

BP had rebranded to Beyond Petroleum in 2000.

He said times were different…they were doing things better, safer. But this wasn’t really true.


Tony Hayward
"Our primary purpose in life is to create value for our shareholders."

Sara: Evidence shows that while Hayward had made some positive changes, BP still had an abysmal safety track record. For example, in the years leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP’s refineries were responsible for 97% of what are called “egregious and willful” safety violations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Carlyle: The Deepwater Horizon had had all kinds of issues at the Macondo well. Workers called it the “well from hell.” They were behind schedule, and expenses were mounting. The White House commission later pointed to a series of cost-cutting decisions made by BP and its partners Haliburton and Transocean that led to this massive and avoidable disaster. Even on the morning of the explosion, a crucial final cement test was canceled. It saved BP $128,000.

Sara: This disaster also exposed the consequences of what you might call a small conflict of interest.

Carlyle: Right, at the time, the Minerals Management Service was the federal agency in charge of overseeing and regulating offshore drilling. They were also charged with maximizing revenues from these same operations. Under this relationship, a culture grew that was ripe for corruption.

Sara: After the oil spill led to intense scrutiny, we found out that many MMS officials accepted gifts and trips from oil and gas companies. They were also given cash bonuses for approving risky offshore leases. A former MMS auditor said nothing was being enforced across the board at MMS. MMS even allowed companies to fill in their own inspection reports. And it’s not like all of these were done in good faith either. When Gulf of Mexico reports were later reviewed, there were dozens of mentions of walruses!

Carlyle: We don’t have walruses here.

Sara: No we don’t! Portions of the reports were just copied and pasted from drilling plans from the Arctic!

Carlyle: Needless to say, none of this was not a good look for BP.

They began spraying massive amounts of Corexit, a dispersant.


Hugh Kaufman: "The sole purpose in the Gulf for dispersants is to keep a cover-up going for BP to try to hide the volume of oil that has been released and save them hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of fines."

Sara: BP said at first said a thousand barrels of oil were spilling a day. Using BP’s underwater video feeds and satellite images, experts were able to conclude that the real number was around 50,000 barrels a day gushing into the Gulf. That’s about 2.1 million gallons a day.

Carlyle: And BP mounted a massive 50 million dollar PR campaign

Livelihoods, an entire ecosystem, and a way of life were on the brink of ruin.

And CEO Tony Hayward was tired of dealing with it.


Tony Hayward
“There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back."


Carlyle: Here we are 13 years later, and the damage is still unfolding, while BP continues its fight to dodge accountability.

Which leads us to your reporting, Sara. You’ve been speaking with dozens of people who helped clean up this disaster. Tell us a bit about who came to try to save the coast from the oil.

Sara: Most of them were from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida — places where the oil washed ashore. Some were fishers put out of work by the spill. Most were lower income.

Carlyle: And people got sick.

Sara: Yes, more than 22,000 people were part of an earlier settlement for short-term illnesses. You hear the number 60 billion a lot…the total amount that BP eventually had to pay– in criminal and civil penalties, natural resource damages, and in economic claims and cleanup costs. But very little of that actually went to the people who came to clean up BP’s disastrous mess, who were most exposed to the toxic oil and dispersants. The settlements for short-term illnesses only averaged about $3,000 per claim.

Carlyle: And then the world moved on. There were important ongoing studies that continued looking at the longer-term impacts on our environment. But not on the people who were exposed. And years after the spill, although much of the ecosystem was beginning to heal, some people were just starting to get sick.

Sara: Right. The thing with exposure to oil and these dispersants is that it takes years after exposure for cancer to manifest. BP knew that. But people like Frank Stuart didn’t.

Carlyle: Unlike Tony Hayward, some people never got their life back.

Frank Stuart suddenly fell ill in 2018 and died three months later of myeloid leukemia, a cancer linked to exposure to benzene, a toxin found in oil.


Next, Sara talks to Sheree Kerner, Frank Stuart’s wife, about her late husband, Frank, and her fight to get justice for him and other oil spill cleanup workers.

Clips from Frank Stuart video
Frank Stuart:
“This was really a crusade to make sure that we protected the wetlands and the estuary. We made sure that if there was a fisherman or crew member who needed work, we put them to work so they wouldn’t lose their home. They wouldn’t lose their car. They had a way to eat. Life outside of BP for months was nonexistent…all we were eating, sleeping, drinking was BP oil spill.”

That is Frank Stuart in a video made by his daughter. While oil gushed from the seafloor of the Gulf,Short intro to Frank led a team of cleanup workers in south Louisiana.

Now here are Sara and Sheree.

Sara:  So today I'm talking to Cherie Kerner about her husband, Frank Stewart. We've been talking off and on for what, like three years?

Sheree: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe more.

Sara: So in the video your daughter recorded of Frank, he says working on the spill was like a crusade to protect the wetlands. Why was he so passionate about saving the coast?

Sheree: Well, we have relatives down there, we have friends down there. The economy comes from that area. And, um, you know, the eng he was a civil engineer. And, um, all of the, um, engineering firms, um, are constantly working to build levies and do things to protect, you know, the, um, the public. And so, um, all, for all of those reasons,

Sara: Yeah, and it was essential to Louisiana, basically, our economy.

Sheree: It was an emergency, yeah, it was a save lives, save the coastline. Um, situation. So it was very important.

Sara: And you two were together for, like, 22 years?

Sheree: Uh, well, we met each other in 1991, and he died in, um, 2018, so that was 27. 27 years.

Sara: And then, and then the spill happened, uh, the BP spill happened in 2010.And how did Frank get involved, uh, and what was he doing in the cleanup that followed?

Sheree: Well, we were watching what happened, um, with the BP explosion on the, um, on the news. And, uh, you know, you kind of have to, it's almost like watching 9 11, you know? Yeah. You know that a lot of people on the rig died. Then you're wondering what's going on with the marine life there. And then you start realizing the oil as actually in the water. So that's gonna be contaminating the seafood, which It's, uh, a major industry for the state of Louisiana, and then, well, wait a second, it's going to be reaching the coast. Well, when it reaches the coast, it's going to destroy the estuary, so it's going to destroy future generations, and then you start thinking about the people that live there, and then it's like, holy crap, you know? Um, so, uh, He's a civil engineer and, uh, he was really brilliant. So Frank immediately went down there.There was still some debate because BP kept saying that it wasn't going to be hitting the coast and, you know, kind of downplayed the explosion from the beginning. And so they weren't exactly sure, you know, what to believe, but you could smell it, you could see it coming. And it was a little inevitable that this was going to happen. So they came up with the idea that, um, that there was going to need to be something put in place to at least stop the oil from moving close. So, you know, they were coming up with the boom idea, but then they were also very frantic about the, um, the population down there in Lafitte because, um, after Katrina, it decimated the seafood industry, and they were, uh, waiting for a good season, and they thought 2010 was the good season to rebound back from Katrina. So then they came up with the idea is that, well, obviously, if you put the boom out there, you're going to need some workers. And then I think they also, started coming up with the strategies of circ, circling the oil, maybe burn off oil, or, you know, bringing the oil to different places It quickly became a 16 hour a day project for four months.

Sara: Wow. And. This is like what we were just talking about in the video, Frank said that for months life outside of the BP oil spill was non existent. We heard him say they were, they were pretty much 24 7 eating, drinking and sleeping BP oil spill. Um, when did Frank start getting sick?

Sheree: Um, after they disappeared the oil, which was, um, very baffling to everybody. It's like, how could all of that oil disappear? Cause everybody was planning. That this was going to be a multi year project, this cleanup effort. And so it, uh, it pretty much stopped everybody in their tracks when they brought in the core exit.So, everybody just, um, returned back to, um, that could turn back to their normal lives. Frank just started moving on to his other projects until, uh, 2018. Um, he had just finishedhis annual checkup, and, uh, You know, passed with flying colors and he was, uh, very active. Um, then we took a little trip to Houston and then when he came back, he had a colonoscopy and after the colonoscopy was over with, we came home and, um, a couple hours later he started feeling a little feverish. And, um, I didn't believe the thermometers, you know, we had two thermometers and I really thought they were, they were broken, um, because I was seeing like 103. 9, 104. you would think that was probably a mild infection caused by the colonoscopy because that, you know, that can happen. And, um, and you just take an antibiotic and you're back. You know, to normal, but the Cipro wasn't helping. So, uh, so we went to the hospital and, um, you know, they thought, yeah, he might have gotten sepsis. And, uh, but the blood work was very, very unusual, but I'm telling you, it was like, I don't know how many disciplines that he had, And so they were all giving me conflicting advice, you know, because this one thought it was this, this one thought it was that. And every single one of them asked us the entire time, have you ever worked around chemicals? And we both said no, because we didn't count BP as um...as working around chemicals. And, um, so, you know, that probably threw them off. Probably would have been helpful for us to know that BP, you know, even eight years later would be considered that you worked around chemicals. But then, uh, Dr. Lessinger finally came in and, um, she had done a, uh, a, a bone marrow, um, biopsy. And, um, and it turned out that that was, you know, the, that's what the problem was, was acute myeloid leukemia. And the only path to a cure is chemo and you're too weak to do chemo. And I said, well, I have six kids. They all live outside the area. Two of them are in England right now. Should I get them in? And she said, yeah, you need to get them in right away. And so, um, so then I'm thinking. Um, and it's really crazy how you can have these kind of dialogues in the face of this kind of news. Um, I said, well, baby, do you want Franco and I to drive to Yellowstone, which was his ultimate favorite place, and spread your ashes there? And he said, no, I want to, I want to be with my family. And I said, what do you, you want to be on the nightstand? He goes, yeah, that's where I want to be.

Sara: You told me previously that, um, when you were in the, You know, sitting next to Frank's bed that you were searching and trying to searching this kind of leukemia and seeing what on your computer and you were just what could cause this. And I think you said that exposure to benzene is one of the things that came up. And then you looked up benzene and you saw that it was an oil and then it clicked for you that, you know, maybe this was caused by his work on the BP.

Sheree: Yeah, that was either before or after we started itemizing everything. Uh, yeah, that's exactly what happened.I'm sat next to him looking for it. And just like you said, it, you know, came up with, um, benzene, you know, and, uh, with it, it wasn't like maybe it's linked. Definitely linked to acute myeloid leukemia, and then it pointed to the oil spill. And then I found, um, the insurance, insurance journal wrote an article about, um, what the lawyers said in court. I didn't even know, you know, that, I didn't even pay attention to in 2014 that there was this BP settlement, um, basically to throw all the victims underneath the bus, really. Uh, where the, the lawyers argued that they would put money aside, uh, for latent injuries because it takes years for cancers to develop, such as blood cancer. And it's like... If they knew this, why didn't we know this? how do they know it takes years? Well, because they had an instance where years passed and people started developing cancer. Well, why wouldn't they tell people something like that? And um, they never, not only never told anybody about it, they, Went on the other side of it and wouldn't let anybody wear protective gear because they didn't want the media to see people in protective gear and alarm the rest of the country, you know, so it was just it's just reprehensible to me how you know how they can Do smoke slow motion murder Basically is what they did.

Sara: Right, right. And in my reporting, um, I saw some, we found some documents that BP's executives were talking amongst each other when it came to measuring the exposure that the cleanup workers were experiencing. And they focused their full efforts on air monitors, knowing that nothing was coming up on the air monitors and in these emails that were gained= by attorneys But they basically said, Well, zeros are good on the air monitors because it will be good for future litigation. they were preparing their case against their own cleanup workers…

Sheree: and they actually prepared years in advance, even before the BP oil spill happened, you know, they already knew how to respond in this kind of situation in order to particularly minimize their loss and, uh, walk away with impunity.

Sara: are you referring to like the Exxon Valdez or, or what?

Sheree: Oh, yeah, even, uh, even, yeah, in fact, that's what, um, some of the lawyers talked about, uh, was that, um, after the Exxon Valdez happened, they sent lawyers down there to watch what kind of testing, what all of the occurrences so they could look for where the loopholes were, and they could plan their strategy

Sara: Yeah. And they knew that the best way to gauge chemical exposure to know if people are going to. I'm going to get sick later is by, you know, taking urine samples, taking blood samples, um, what they call bio monitoring. Yeah. And, um, so several government agencies told BP that the best way to measure whether people were, you being exposed and they might get sick in the future was to do biomonitoring and BP did not, did not do that.

Sheree: Mm hmm. And our government did not make them do that.

Sara: Right. Right. Um, do you think that there's a way that the cleanup workers could have been protected?

Sheree: Absolutely. You know, like even in, um, even in our situation, they could have at minimum told us that If, you ever get asked, if you work on, um, around chemicals, to say yes, because this is going to count forever. Okay? And had we known, if, uh, you get anything unusual, like a spiked fever, go immediately to the hospital. Those two things could have put Frank in a position where he could have gone straight for a bone marrow test to find out that it was acute myeloid leukemia that had started to unleash itself. And, um, he would have been strong enough at that point to be able to withstand the chemo. But since we had to be hush hush and find all of this out later so he could... become a disappearing victim, um, that opportunity got taken away from us.

Sara: And you also said that they didn't give people protective equipment that could have limited their exposure as well. So they weren't wearing any kind of breathing equipment. They weren't wearing any kind of like Tyvek suits to protect their skin.

Sheree: In fact, they were told they would be fired if they came with protective gear. and then some of them, uh, their wives died, you know, that, um, were washing the clothes.

Sara: Wow. Yeah. Do you think that there are other people out there who are sick who don't link their, okay, their illnesses?

Sheree: They never connected the dots. Yeah. You know, Frank and I were educated and, uh, you would think we would be smart enough, you know, to be able to connect those dots. You know, he's a civil engineer, you know, I'm in technology, you know, so. You would think you have better sense, but you just don't connect the dots eight years later, you don't think that that's possibly going to cause a problem. Yeah, that was the point of me, um, touring the lower parishes, was to alert everybody. Because we couldn't even get the state of Louisiana help. to put a pamphlet together to at least help people understand which, you know, what should we be looking for and what should we do? So we had to do that amongst ourselves, I mean, it's really not the medical profession's fault in the hospitals that, um, that BP, needed to bear the burden or the state needed to bear the burden to notify the medical community. If they're not going to alert us, alert them because then you could go to your doctor and your doctor would say on that questionnaire, did you ever work on the BP oil spill? Right. Not a vague question. You ever work around chemicals, you know, be direct about it.

Sara: Yeah. And you've been, you've been trying to, uh, get people to understand that their work on this spill could have caused them to be sick. The day after Frank died is, is kind of when you started this. Can you talk about, can you talk about that?

Sheree: Yeah. Coincidentally, Frank died the day before the eighth anniversary of the BP oil spill and every year they, they do a rally. And, uh, so I went to it and, um, with all of the kids and it was pretty hair raising. Watching victim after victim after victim get up there and tell a story about the medical mystery tour we just went on. And it's the same story. Everybody's story is the same thing, you know.

Sara: and you have a lawsuit against BP for Frank's death. Mm hmm. And, and that alleges that his exposure to the Corexit, um, which is a dispersant that was used to break up the oil slicks. And as you said, disappear the oil, um, that exposure to that and exposure to the oil is what made him sick. Yeah. And, um, during the, the, the time of the spill BP was putting in all the newspapers that they were going to make it right,but that's not been your experience, right? This has not been an easy lawsuit. Right.

Sheree: It was a show. That's all that was.

Sara: And with and with these long term uh, illness cases like yours, um, and, and, and deaths, um, there was an opportunity for BP to settle these, you know, early on and they haven't, right? They're fighting each claim and um, part of the reason why. each case has to be an individual lawsuit is because that was set up. It was set up this way, right, that there's no settlement. You know, people who have been hurt by BP, they cannot go in together.

Sara: And then to our knowledge, only one person has, um, had a settlement, uh, with BP, right? Yeah. And so the odds are... Not and not in plaintiff's favor at this point.

Sheree: No. No, they don't know plaintiffs don't have the biometric data That was that was necessary and like even in my case even though Benzene is directly linked to cancer, blood cancer, acute myeloid leukemia cancer Direct link. The lawyers thought I had a really, you know, great case. , five years ago, there was a lot of um, anticipation and hope in the legal industry. that, uh, that these cases would be able to move forward, especially Frank's case. You know, they thought that was a bellwether case. They thought, that's going to go through. We just need that case to go through, and then everybody else's can follow right along with that. But, uh, but no.

Sara: So, yeah. Because, again, BP didn't do the biomonitoring. They didn't collect blood samples, they didn't collect urine, so now they're using the fact that they didn't collect that information to show, well, we don't have that information.

Sheree: And it's really not fair. I mean, people love going to the movies to see Erin Brockovich prevail, you know, why can't we do that in real life? Especially these people, um, were, were, uh, in this to save the rest of everything else. You know, people's lives, the marine lives, you know, the, uh, the land, and, uh, and they don't get any justice.

Sara: And, and BP is spending money fighting these cases, BP spent money to put those full page ads in newspapers saying that they were going to make it right. And do you, do you think that if a spill of this magnitude happened again, that the people paid to clean it up, uh, would be any safer?

Sheree: No. I think at least what we may know is that, um, maybe we shouldn't cooperate with them, you know? So I think, you know, hopefully, our society has learned a lesson that, um, screw them, you know? I mean, you know, I guess we're gonna lose a lot, you know, there's a, there's the downside to it. You know, what if, what if, you know, you let the land just get contaminated and you just let the sea life die and you have to vacate the land and move up? You know? Does that make sense? You know,

Sara: No, it doesn't. Yeah, it doesn't. But there haven't been any policies put into place, policy changes put in place that would stop this from happening.

Sheree: No. They listen on the local level, you know, they listen more than on the state level. And uh, and we all know about the oil lobbyists.

Sara: Right. So. You all have been pushing for policy changes, including, uh, not, you know, not using dispersant if a, if a chemical, if an oil spill were to happen again, and that, again, that's the chemical that they use to break up the oil spill, that...

Sheree: Yeah, it turned it into nanoparticles, and it was 52 times more deadly. It was a delivery system straight to your DNA, is basically what it was.

Sara: Yes, it basically breaks down cellular... barriers that allow more toxins in, um, and, and yeah, and then they can pollute your body and they can cause DNA changes that eventually lead to, to cancer. And this is come out of the research coming out of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Um, and so policy changes might include, yeah, uh, limiting or, or banning the use of that, um, form of chemical dispersant, or they might require people to wear. Hazmat suits. Mm-hmm. or they might, um, require BP or, or another oil company to do biomonitoring on a spill, but none of that has…

Sheree: none of it.

Sara: I'm so sorry. Like, yeah. This is, this is just. It is, um, hard to see other people go through this, and it is not fair. It's just not fair. Um, and I really appreciate that you talk about this issue and, and you bring awareness, um, and I appreciate you talking with us abo ut it today.

Sheree: Yeah. Thank you, Sara, very much.

Up next, we dive into the system that allowed the disaster to happen in the first place.


Has the broken system that led to the disaster actually been fixed? In the final report by the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, after it details all the human and mechanical failures that contributed to the BP disaster, it went on to name the clear root cause, and that “was a failure of industry management and also by failures of government to provide effective regulatory oversight of offshore drilling.” It went on to say that a similar disaster, “absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

So has there been significant reform, or could another tragic event like the BP spill happen any day?

I talk to the Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to find out.

Carlyle: I'm joined now by Kevin Sligh. He's the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE. Mr. Sligh was here in the aftermath of the Deepwater spill. At the time, he was the Operations Section Chief for the Coast Guard, overseeing the cleanup of all the oil that came to the surface during that disaster. Now he is in charge of ensuring the safe and environmentally responsible production of America's offshore energy resources.

Hello. Thanks for talking with me today.

Kevin: Hey, good morning. Thanks for having me on. Really looking forward to the conversation today. Yes, I am as well, so thanks for being here.

Carlyle: So BESE is an agency that was created in the aftermath of the BP disaster to replace the broken system underneath the Mineral Management Service. Can you talk about why this was an important change and what BSEE’s role is?

Kevin: So, I think that's a great question. When we start talking about BESE’s role with industry, um, we definitely thread a needle. Uh, we definitely need cooperation, but you know, most importantly, we regulate operations from a safety and enforcement and compliance perspective to protect the environment, and also, the workforce that is out there supporting activities on the outer continental shelf.

Carlyle: If you could you explain how BESE is different from the system that was broken before under the Mineral Management service? Everyone admitted that there was an issue there.

Kevin: Yeah, not getting into the specifics of the issue we've doubled down. We've, we've, you know, we've made it very intentional to keep that separation as the regulator from an ethical standpoint.

Carlyle: So there was a recent report released by the National Academy of Sciences, who I should note is a funder of Sea Change, That said there is little evidence that the industry is working collectively to enhance its safety culture. Is this a concern for you?

Kevin: Well, as, as, as you noted in that, in that NAS report, that is, uh, one of the things that was highlighted, but here's what I can say is the BSEE director, I've been here for a year and four months. And when I sit down with the, the industry folks at my level and, uh, my folks at the regional level and the district office level sit down with these folks, industry is looking at safety. They're, they are making sure that their cultures reflect, you know really, you know, their job is to protect human lives and the environment. It's, it's not just BSEE’s concern. It's one of the highest priorities for these individual owner-operators that operate on the outer continental shelf. So, if you're asking me specifically, are they in concert? I, I think they are. From my perspective, each one of the the majors and mids are working towards a better safety culture every day.

Carlyle: I'm just going to push back on that because this report was completed by a lot of people who were part of the national commission after Deep Water Horizon. A lot of people who've worked in oil and gas for a long time, a lot of people who know this industry. And that was their main criticism, that there's not been enough done by industry to, to fix one of the root causes, which is the lack of safety in the culture.

Kevin: Well, my talking points won't, won't change. I, like I said, we are working every day to have conversations individually with each owner-operator to make sure that they are focusing on safety. There are some things that we could do better from my perspective as, as these owner-operators are operating from a contractor perspective to make sure that the, the, the, the operators impress upon the contractors that they have to follow the same regs and standards that they do from a safety culture and the safety perspective moving forward.

Carlyle: Right. And that's actually an important point because, SEMS, which is your safety and Environmental management system.

Kevin: It’s the audit system that we use, correct.

Carlyle: Kind of the rules that you can enforce with lease-holders and operators but it seems to be a big concern with this system–and this is something you were just mentioning–it’s enforceable with the leaseholders and operators, but not with the contractors, who are actually now doing 80-85% of the work out there–and usually most hazardous work. So how are we ensuring that it’s all being done as safely as possible if you can only enforce that with part of the actors that are out there doing really risky work.

Kevin: Well, I think that's a great question. we tried to take a hard look at that post-Macondo to make that shift, Ms. Calhoun, and it, it wasn't received well. Um, and have we taken another bite at it? Uh, not at this time, but we are trying to do things, you know, within our regulatory regime to, move the ball, to start thinking a little bit more about best available science. So we are, you know, incrementally trying to, to jump across the chasm. I don't know if we'll ever get to the point where, um, where, where the contractors will fully have to, uh, follow those, uh, standards. I think we are incrementally making change, but it seemed to be a huge chasm to jump all at once.

Carlyle: Hmm mm. we are now drilling farther out and much deeper than we were 13 years ago, which is far riskier. So are we really safer and are our regulations keeping up, with that increased risk?

Kevin: I think, um, you know, I, I, I really can't speak to what's in the rules that we're currently working to hopefully get out as final rules here by the end of the year, but what I will say is some of the work that's being done, going more deeper and, uh, and into the Gulf of Mexico Waters and further out really just shows the level of expertise, um, that not only industry is displaying, but also BESE’s displaying, uh, to be able to make sure that there's safety concerns being addressed in these new rules. industry doesn't want, uh, to have another well control event. it's not just the government regulator that's trying to, make sure we don't have another Macondo or deep water horizon, industry is, is, you know, to be quite honest, they don't want to have anyone question their viability in the future. And, and they don't want their brand to be hit, uh, such as, uh, what happened during Deep Water horizon.

Carlyle: that's interesting. I mean that is kind of what is in the background of this whole conversation is of course climate change and the conversation about the transition. And as you're saying, these companies wanna remain viable. so let's talk about the future. A recent University of Michigan led study found that the Gulf’s offshore fossil fuel production has twice the climate warming impact of official estimates. And yet we are expanding oil and gas drilling in the Gulf at a time when scientists are saying we need to phase out fossil fuel use as soon as possible. So how are climate implications being considered in what BESE does?

Kevin: how are doing to move forward from a climate change perspective? everybody talks about, you know, clean energy, and we are moving into that phase, where the, the US government and industry are looking at opportunities. The president has his 30 gigawatts by 2030 perspective to be reached by 2030. So how do we get to these, these, these huge numbers, uh, by this administration's, uh, promise to the American public? Industry is moving towards what I would call retooling its views. And what I tend to do is look at it from this perspective as we move to a different culture here within BSEE. We traditionally have looked at oil and gas as the primary way to provide energy to the United States, from my bureau's perspective. But now we're moving into offshore wind and carbon sequestration. And what I tried to impress upon my workforce is that we're, we're diversifying our energy portfolio to make sure that we're not as dependent on domestic issues or international issues like the Ukrainian War to then drive up energy prices moving forward.

Carlyle: you were just talking about the transition that is already ongoing and will continue so something that I know you're very aware of is how many abandoned wells are out there, just in Louisiana, we are littered with thousands and thousands of them, which is a huge issue, with methane emissions and all kinds of other issues.So you also know there's thousands of miles of abandoned pipelines out there already. All of this polluting infrastructure that we’ve allowed companies to walk away from, leaving it up to the taxpayers to pay for the cleanup.. So as this transition away from oil and gas happens, how is Bessie going to ensure that all of this additional equipment and infrastructure is decommissioned safely and that it’s not going to be left to the public to pick up the tab for it all?

Kevin: I really appreciate the question. Kind of anticipated it. You know we are working through our updates on, on financial assurance rules to make sure that we can hold industry accountable to be able to replace and do what they're supposed to, to do from a, a decommissioning standpoint, which was a lease stipulation when they obtained these leases. It shouldn’t be incumbent on the American public to pay and foot that bill. So we're trying to get better. Um, we are, we're not completely there, but we are moving in the right direction with the release of these two, these two financial assurance rules here, uh, here this year. And then, uh, working together to make sure that we hold industry accountable moving forward.

So I appreciate your time, Ms. Calhoun today. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.


CARLYLE: This was just part of my interview with Kevin Sligh. We spoke for over an hour. He told me about some new rules that are in the works. And he pointed out a few places where industry and his agency, BSEE, could improve. But: it’s his job to make industry want to work with him, so as we were talking, I kept thinking: whether that was stopping him from saying anything too critical about oil and gas development in the United States.

Over the course of reporting this episode, I spoke with several experts to get their sense of where we really stand, 13 years after the BP oil spill. One of those experts was Donald Boesch, a biological oceanographer who was on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And he pretty much summed it

Carlyle: If somebody asks this very simple question, are we safer now than we were before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? What would you say?

Donald: I'd say short answer is yes, but not safe enough.

Carlyle: Donald said there is positive momentum now at BSEE and in the industry to improve safety, for workers and the environment. BUT he said: there are still big issues–you heard about some of them, like the fact that BSEE can’t enforce regulations on the contractors who do most of the work,. and that industry still lacks a real commitment to a culture of safety. Plus: a lot of the reforms being touted are just voluntary. When I asked Donald what Congress has done? He said Congress has not done much at all, and it's been a real problem. In fact, Congress has yet to pass one piece of legislation to make drilling safer

As long as we are drilling oil and gas, the question of whether another Deepwater Horizon-sized disaster could happen again will never go away.

And while we cross our fingers another massive oil spill doesn’t occur, we are continuing to drill for fossil fuels, further burning up our planet. In fact, we are expanding fossil fuel development, in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

Even under a Democratic president — Joe Biden — who campaigned on tackling climate change.

Here’s Donald again:
Donald: “the Biden administration came in and had this view about it was going to, you know, phase out oil and gas production from public lands and waters. And, uh, lo and behold, they hit this stumbling block called Joe Manchin.

Carlyle: Joe Manchin: the Democratic senator from West Virigina, who’s notoriously pro-fossil fuel development. He refused to support the inflation reduction act unless the Biden administration offers up millions of acres of leasing for oil and gas development every year for the next decade.

Donald: and it was pretty clear the industry's working hard with their supporters and others in the right place to have their way with that future, more opportunity to lease and as little regulation as they could get by with.”


CARLYLE: So: what about Sheree Kerner and the thousands of people still fighting lawsuits with BP, seeking justice for illnesses, for deaths, directly caused by the oil spill?I reached out to BP for a comment about the these lawsuits and about its approach to the safety of cleanup workers during the cleanup. I also asked whether these procedures have changed since the Deepwater Horizon spill. BP responded that the company does not comment on active litigation and that it has nothing to share beyond what is in the court documents. This year, BP boasted its highest ever annual profits. It’s choosing to spend some of that money on legions of lawyers to squash the lawsuits of people who came to clean up its colossal and destructive mess. A mess whose harm is still being born by our environment and by those workers.

CARLYLE: Thanks for listening to Sea Change. This episode was produced and hosted by me, Carlyle Calhoun, and by Sara Sneath. Editing help was provided by Rosemary Westwood, Halle Parker and Garrett Hazelwood. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti. Sea Change is a WWNO and WRKF production. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

Sea Change is made possible with major support from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Meraux Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

And, we want to say goodbye and best of luck to our friend and Sea Change comrade, Kezia Setyawan, who is leaving us for the wonders and cooler weather of Scotland! We’re going to miss you, Kezia.

See you all in two weeks.

Carlyle Calhoun is the managing producer of <i>Sea Change.</i> You can reach her at: carlyle@wwno.org