The Deepwater Horizon disaster began on 20 April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana on a BP-operated oil drilling rig.
This was not a “spill.”
It was a blowout, a less familiar word that comes closer to describing the violence of that event than an everyday word like “spill”. We spill water, coffee, tea. For most of us, our only experience with blowout might be from a bad tire, and that violent act pales beside the explosion that triggered this disaster.
Spill, however, is the most common noun you’ll see associated with this massive environmental catastrophe. For example, from EPA: “the largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations.”
Deepwater Horizon was situated 4,992 feet (1,521 metres) above the sea bed; it was capable of operating in much deeper water (10,000 feet or 3,000 metres). The oil well it supported extended another 18,000 feet (5,486 metres) into the rock.
First came the explosion that killed 11 people in a 126 person crew.
Two days later, the oil rig capsized. Once that happened, “the damaged pipe below the rig began spewing oil into the surrounding water.”
The blowout caused an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil to pollute the Gulf of Mexico. It would take six months (19 September 2010) before BP succeeded in sealing the well.
In 2016 BP agreed to pay a record $20.8 billion in fines and penalties ($24.8 billion in current dollars). For context, BP annual income last year was $164 billion, and its gross profit was $44 billion.
How did this happen?
The world’s largest oil rig contractor, TransOcean, owned the Deepwater Horizon. Halliburton, an oil field services company once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, helped BP to operate the rig. Staff were ready to begin testing the well in early April 2010.
The ultimate cause of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a series of preventable missteps by engineers and workers designing and carrying out a drill plan in the weeks and hours preceding the event…
In the months leading up to the disaster, Halliburton had conducted several tests showing that the type of cement used wasn’t stable, meaning that it might form pores that allow liquids and gasses to pass through it. Halliburton shared some of these test results with BP, but the company decided to proceed…
Britannica notes that Wikileaks released documents showing “that a similar incident had occurred on a BP-owned rig in the Caspian Sea in September 2008.”
The fines and penalties directed at BP were woefully inadequate given the prior failure and the warnings from engineers.
The petroleum released from the well formed an oil slick that covered more than 57,500 square miles (149,000 square km) of the Gulf of Mexico. That is larger than the state of Louisiana (52,069.13 square miles; 135,382 square km).
Oil was polluting Louisiana beaches in May. By June, oil was also polluting beaches in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. BP’s blowout polluted an estimated 1,100 miles (1,770 km) of shoreline.
The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, formed by Obama in May 2010 … attributed the spill to a lack of regulatory oversight by the government [as well as] negligence and time-saving measures on the part of BP and its partners.
Could something like it happen again?
The answer depends upon who you ask.
In 2020, The New York Times reported:
[A] decade later, all seven members of the bipartisan national commission set up to find the roots of the disaster and prevent a repeat said many of their recommendations were never taken seriously. As drilling moves farther offshore and deeper underwater, they said, another spill of equally disastrous proportions is possible.
All seven members, in fact, agreed that the United States was only marginally better prepared than it was the night eleven people died in the fiery blowout …
Offshore drilling collapsed after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but a decade later it is back and going strong. Production has surpassed pre-accident levels by a few hundred thousand barrels a day, and oil companies brought seven new projects online in 2019. Nine more were expected this year, though the recent collapse of oil prices, largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic, is forcing companies to rethink their investments…
In May , the Trump administration announced a rule that removed some of the safety requirements imposed by the Obama administration, which industry had complained were burdensome and costly…
Congress, they noted, failed to pass legislation that would permanently secure the safety bureau as independent from agencies aimed promoting oil production…
The commission advised Congress to increase the time the federal government had to review offshore exploration plans, and to give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration a formal role in those deliberations. They also recommended that Congress require the oil and gas industry to pay fees that support environmental science and regulatory review. None of those measures have been implemented.