The BP drilling rig explosion five years ago sent 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing widespread damage to wildlife, ecosystems and livelihoods still seen today.
The Bureau of Ocean Management waited 20 months after the disaster to hold its first drilling lease sale—but it was a temporary disruption. "There was some pent up demand" in that first sale, which saw 20 companies spending $325 million on 181 drilling leases, said John Filostrat, a spokesman for the agency. It became clear that "companies are still investing in the Gulf."
Overall, lease sales have dropped 60 percent since the BP spill, but the areas being leased for exploration are significant, and reflect the industry's push into deeper and riskier waters far offshore. Companies have purchased the rights to drill on nearly 9 million acres since 2010—an area twice the size of New Jersey—and all of it in the Gulf of Mexico.
The leases run from 5 to 10 years, depending on the depth of the seafloor, said Filostrat. Once a company spends up to millions of dollars to acquire a 3 mile-by-3 mile lease, it has to conduct and get approved environmental reviews and exploration plans, as well as obtain an official permit to drill. This process can often take the full life of a lease, after which companies have the option to renew, Filostrat said.
The abundant lease sales, long permitting process and industry's sustained interest in pushing ever deeper into Gulf reserves mean there will be drilling in these ecologically sensitive and damaged waters for years to come.