America learned a lesson about the vast harms oil spills unleash when the Exxon Valdez tanker struck a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, releasing an influx of crude into biologically rich waters. That spill prompted lasting reforms to prevent future disasters. But that was a different generation and time, and unfortunately, new lessons had to be learned. The BP spill again kicked people into action.
Soon after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, I met Jonathan Henderson, then a coastal resiliency organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network. He’d secured a spot in a small plane and flew over the disaster. What he saw shocked him, and he began a relentless stint of 18-hour days, documenting the spill from land, sea, and air.
This fact is often forgotten, but just weeks before the spill, President Obama announced a proposal to allow offshore drilling in sections of the Atlantic Seaboard, eastern Gulf, and north Alaskan coast. The catastrophe stalled the controversial move. “There were past fights against the industry’s expansion, but there was nothing that got as much national attention as the BP spill,” says Henderson, “and it happened to coincide with this time when U.S. policy was headed toward a plan to open up new areas.”
By 2014 drilling was again on the table from New Jersey to Florida. As communities rose to fight development, Henderson became a go-to knowledge source.
He spoke in several states and always brought his photos and videos from the BP disaster. “My approach was to show people the impact this industry would have on your beaches, your wetlands, your bays, and how it would endanger industries like tourism and fishing,” he says.
The East Coast has thus far successfully resisted offshore drilling, despite incredible pressure—now brought by the Trump administration—to open those waters. In fact, the specter of rigs has generated remarkable bipartisan opposition by politicians and citizens, unity that’s hard to find for any other environmental issue.
Something was learned that cannot be erased by anyone who sees photos of the spill, of crude-darkened pelican chicks, or a graceful heron desperate to fly with tar-gunked wings. Those of us behind the cameras were transformed by the experience. We woke up to the industry’s complex web of oil and
While the Gulf still has problems, and we struggle to wean our society off fossil fuels, we have the knowledge of the harms that can happen, and this is important. The spill was a wake-up call to the world—because the whole world was watching—that offshore drilling brings environmental and climate risks that extend beyond any one patch of ocean. This must not be forgotten, and I don’t think many people have.
Justin Nobel reported on the spill for Audubon and later covered the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries from New Orleans. He’ s writing a forthcoming book on the sector.