Andrew Hartsig

Document Type



On April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion and resulting fire killed eleven crew members, seriously injured sixteen others, and eventually sank the rig. The explosion also marked the beginning of the “world’s largest accidental release of oil into marine waters.” By the time BP effectively stopped the flow of oil on July 15, its Macondo well had discharged approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was a human and environmental tragedy, and it may take years to assess the full scope of the damage to the people, economies, and ecosystems of the Gulf region. The Deepwater Horizon disaster revealed systemic weaknesses in the administration of oil and gas activities on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). It also underscored the difficulty of stopping and responding to a major oil spill, even in the relatively accessible and temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (National Commission)—a bipartisan commission created by the President and charged with investigating the disaster and developing options for improving offshore oil and gas practices— identified a series of “weaknesses and . . . inadequacies” in the federal government’s oversight of OCS oil and gas activities. The National Commission found that these shortcomings affected the full spectrum of OCS activities, from planning for OCS oil and gas lease sales, to administering offshore exploration and development activities, to planning and implementing oil spill response efforts. The National Commission recommended a broad “overhaul” of “the regulatory policies and institutions used to oversee offshore activities to address these problems.” This Article discusses the existing framework for federal oversight of OCS oil and gas activities—including oil spill preparation and response, and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)— and recommends policy and legislative solutions to address the flaws in that framework. Section II provides an overview of the existing statutory, regulatory, and policy structures that govern oil and gas activities, oil spill preparedness, and response on the OCS. Section III reviews some of the initial investigations and administrative and legislative actions that occurred in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Section IV identifies and discusses some of the critical shortcomings that remain, and suggests reforms necessary to make OCS oil and gas operations safer and more environmentally responsible. Finally, Section V examines what may be the next frontier—expanded oil and gas operations in OCS waters off Alaska’s North Slope—and recommends additional measures necessary to protect vulnerable Arctic ecosystems.



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