Oil Spill in the Gulf
The BP oil spill, in brief
The Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil-drilling rig, exploded on the night of April 20, 2010 while working on a well on the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico. The blast occurred 41 miles from the Louisiana coast. For nearly three months, oil leaked from the Macondo well at a rate estimated between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day. (There are 42 gallons in a barrel, so that’s equal to 1.4 to 2.5 million gallons per day.) Repeated attempts to stop the flow failed until mid-July, when a tighter-fitting cap sealed the well head. In all, the well spilled 4.9 million gallons: the biggest offshore oil spill in history.
The oil company BP (formerly British Petroleum), which was leasing the rig, has promised to pay for the cleanup and to compensate individuals for their losses, and has set up a $20 billion fund for that purpose.
As of September, the well had been effectively sealed. Long-term effects on marine life in the Gulf remain to be seen.
• 7/22/10: The N.Y. Times reports on a survey of workers on the rig before it exploded. The workers expressed concerns about unsafe practices aboard the rig, and said they were afraid of reprisals by Transocean managers if they reported safety problems.
• 9/10/10: Scientists on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico are finding a substantial layer of oily sediment stretching for dozens of miles in all directions. Their discovery suggests that a lot of oil from the Deepwater Horizon didn’t simply evaporate or dissipate into the water — it has settled to the seafloor. See NPR’s website for more.
• 9/20/10: Admiral Thad Allen declares the well “effectively dead,” after cement pumped into a relief well passes a pressure test.
• “Science and the Gulf,” New York Times editorial, 9/20/10: The nation’s top scientists will try to measure how much oil is left in the Gulf and what effect it will have on marine life; BP will pay for the research. The full effects of the spill won’t be known for a long time, but this is an important step—especially since early reports have said contradictory things about how much oil remains in the water.
• The six-month moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf was lifted six weeks early, in mid-October. Drilling will not resume, though, until oil companies and government officials meet new rules designed to prevent another disaster like the BP spill. For example, the 33 rigs affected by the moratorium will have to pass inspection before they can go back to work. See this New York Times story for more.
• According to this article in the New York Times, “Halliburton officials knew weeks before the fatal explosion…that the cement mixture they planned to use to seal the bottom of the well was unstable but still went ahead with the job… The result of at least one of those tests was given on March 8 to BP, which failed to act upon it.”
•1/6/11: The commission appointed by President Obama to investigate the spill has released a chapter from its final report. After questioning hundreds of people and reviewing thousands of pages of documents, the panel finds that failures of management by BP, Transocean and Halliburton were the root cause of the blowout. The report says that choosing risky, fast-and-cheap alternatives is a “pervasive problem” in the industry, not unique to BP. The report also observes that the government’s Minerals Management Service (which was restructured after the disaster) lacked the resources and the will to do its supervisory job. For details, read this.
• 2/28/10: The Department of the Interior has approved a deepwater drilling permit in the Gulf of Mexico: the first since the BP oil spill. A federal spokesman said new permits would be carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
• 4/4/11: BP has asked regulators for permission to start drilling in the Gulf again. This comes a week after the Justice Department said it was considering a range of civil and criminal actions against BP.
Workers had started building a cement casing to reinforce the well when methane gas shot up from the well, ignited, and exploded. The platform, in flames, was evacuated. Eleven workers were never found (it’s assumed that they died in the explosion), and 17 others were injured. Attempts to put out the fire failed; after burning for 36 hours, the Deepwater Horizon sank.
Investigators have not determined what set off the explosion, but workers on the rig and their supervisors had expressed concerns with “well control,” and reported that gases were leaking through the cement hours before the blast.
Attempts to stop the leak
Devices called blowout preventers are supposed to stop leaks like this one, but the blowout preventer failed. A large oil slick began to form on the surface two days after the explosion. BP has tried the following methods to stop or control the flow:
• trying to close the blowout preventer’s valves using remotely operated underwater vehicles.
• lowering a steel containment dome, weighing 90 tons, onto the leak. The plan was to send the oil up through a pipe to a ship above, but gas leaking from the pipe combined with cold water and formed icy slush that clogged the pipe.
• a “top hat,” a smaller containment dome, which also became clogged with ice.
• insertion of a mile-long tube into the well, which sent between 1,000 and 3,000 barrels of oil per day to a ship on the surface—but this is just a fraction of the leaking oil.
• a “top kill”: pumping thick fluids into the blowout preventer, to clog the opening long enough to install a cement cap. Engineers tried this method three times, but the pressure from the escaping oil was too strong to overcome.
• a new containment cap, engineered to prevent ice-formation. This cap managed to capture 15,000 barrels of oil per day, which was then to be siphoned into a ship—but the ship couldn’t hold more oil than that.
For many weeks, officials from both BP and the federal government said the leak would most likely keep flowing until a relief well was completed in August. In July, however, after 86 days of leakage, BP succeeded in capping the well.
Protecting the shore
The leaked oil spread across the surface of the Gulf, and formed large underwater plumes. The Coast Guard and BP, with the help of local residents, used different strategies to protect the shore:
• Skimmer ships removed oil from the surface.
• The Coast Guard burned oil slicks at the water’s surface.
• Workers placed sand-filled barriers at the shoreline
• Long floating barriers anchored to the sea floor, known as containment boom, were set up to corral the spilled oil.
• BP sprayed dispersants on oil slicks from aircraft. Dispersants are chemicals that break patches of oil into small clumps that engineers hoped would settle to the sea bed. BP also sprayed the chemicals into the oil as it flowed from the well. The use of two dispersants in the Corexit family created a controversy: these two chemicals are banned from use on oil spills in the United Kingdom, and the E.P.A. told BP to switch to a less toxic dispersant, but as of mid-June, the company continued to use Corexit. According to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, the amount of dispersant already sprayed by late May was approaching a world record.
Oil reaches the shore: the environmental impact
Oil reached the marshes and beaches of the Louisiana coast in May. By early June, it had soiled 125 miles of Louisiana’s coast and had also reached Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. More than 400 species live in the affected area, including the Kemp’s Ridley turtle, an endangered species. Scientists fear that the oil will smother coral reefs, contaminate seafood, and pollute national parks; they don’t know yet what damage the oil may be doing on the sea floor. As of mid-August, a huge amount of oil remained dissolved in the waters of the Gulf, and scientists don’t know what effect that will have on marine life.
Coast Guard Commander Thad Allen said the oil could be removed from the surface in a matter of months, but cleaning it out of the marshlands would take years. (The site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is still contaminated.)
Size of the spill
Estimates of the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf climbed steadily between April and June. The first estimate was 1,000 barrels a day. As of mid-June, that estimate had reached between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day. The resulting oil slick covered more than 2,500 square miles, but had largely dissipated by August. It’s estimated that a total of 4.9 million barrels of oil, or 205.8 gallons, leaked from the well—of which only 800,000 barrels have been recaptured.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, spilled 750,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. The BP oil spill leaked that much every 12 days.
The world record for an oil spill is still held by the Lakeview Gusher, which spewed 9 million barrels of oil over 18 months in Kern County, north of Los Angeles, in 1910-11.
Tens of thousands of families have been affected by the spill, whether they work in the fishing industry, tourism, or oil. The area of the spill supplies 40% of seafood in the U.S., and the leaked oil put fishermen, crabbers and oystermen out of work. Some of these workers were hired to help contain the spill and clean the beaches; others filed for unemployment benefits. BP CEO Tony Hayward said the company would compensate everyone affected by the spill. According to its own website, BP had issued more than 31,000 checks to Gulf Coast residents, totaling $104 million, by mid-June.
BP said it had spent $1.6 billion in response to the spill by mid-June, mainly on efforts to stop the leak and contain the spilled oil. On June 16, BP agreed to set up a $20 billion fund to pay claims. By the end of June, BP stock had lost 1/2 of its pre-spill value.
Reasoning that BP has more expertise in this area than the government, federal officials at first left the company in charge of stopping the flow of oil. Later, President Obama said the federal government would get more closely involved. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, however, admitted that the government’s role is mainly supervisory, and that responsibility for the stopping the flow and cleaning up the oil belongs to BP.
On June 1, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would begin civil and criminal investigations, to see if any of the companies involved had broken any laws:
• BP is liable for damages resulting from the spill because it was leasing the drilling rig.
• Transocean owned the drilling rig, and was operating it at the time of the explosion.
• Halliburton had contracted to provide cement work on the well. Its workers were trying to reinforce the well just before the explosion.
The companies have all tried to shift at least part of the blame onto each other.
Congressional investigators have been told that there was disagreement over how to cap the well not long before it exploded. Troubling signs seem to have been ignored. Of two possible casings to cap the well, BP chose the cheaper one, despite the risk involved. (For more on this story, see this N.Y. Times article.)
Who’s in charge of this mess?
The inability to stop the flow of oil frustrated politicians, environmentalists, and local residents for months. Despite the president’s efforts to convey strong federal action, many people had the impression that the response was a badly coordinated mess. Billy Nungesser, a local elected official, told the U.S. Senate in June, “I still don’t know who’s in charge.”
The response involved thousands of boats, tens of thousands of workers, and millions of feet of containment boom, but observers (including, especially, elected officials and residents) said that disorganization has resulted in more damage to the coast than might have occurred with a better-coordinated response. Local residents and officials complained bitterly that their efforts to protect the coastline had been hindered or prevented by the federal government. Many cleanup workers were unemployed outsiders with little training or familiarity with the region, who made careless mistakes in their work.
Congress passed a law a year after the Exxon Valdez spill requiring every region of the country to prepare a plan for responding to an oil spill, but no supervisory body required oil companies to prove they could carry out their written plans—and the plans seem to have been hastily patched together in some cases. An Associated Press report on BP’s 2009 spill response plan for the Gulf pointed out, for example, that the plan listed walruses and sea lions as “sensitive biological resources,” though these cold-water mammals aren’t found anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico. (For the full report, go here.)
Others commented, though, that no planned response could have contained the damage from a leak this big.
A political problem for President Obama
Ironically, the president had proposed to expand offshore drilling a few weeks before the explosion. Following the spill, however, he stopped nearly all drilling projects, saying that no new offshore drilling would be allowed until a thorough review of the accident had been completed. (Gulf drilling projects already in progress were allowed to continue, however: a decision that drew criticism. And some new projects were approved despite the moratorium: see this N.Y. Times article for more.)
President Obama said that offshore drilling would remain an important source of oil at least for the near future, despite environmental concerns. In late May, he created a bipartisan commission to study the spill and offshore drilling in general, to determine the causes of the disaster and suggest changes that would make drilling safer and protect the environment.
Responding to critics who said he was not taking forceful enough action, President Obama met with BP executives in June and convinced them to create a $20 billion fund to compensate residents and businesses for losses resulting from the spill. The president has also announced a plan to break up the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, into two parts: one responsible for the safe operation of rigs, and another for collecting revenues. (For more on criticism of the Minerals Management Service for its lax oversight of drilling, see these articles from CNN.com, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post.)
Accusations against BP
Environmentalists and others have accused BP of:
• purposefully underestimating the volume of the flow early on, and denying outside scientists access to data that would have enabled them to make their own estimates
• holding back information about the size of the oil slick
• preventing reporters from entering affected areas, in order to minimize coverage of the spill (government officials, including Coast Guard officers, have also refused access to reporters)
• preventing wildlife rescuers from saving sea turtles when burning oil at the surface, thus burning the turtles alive (for more details, see this Fox News story). After environmental groups sued, however, BP and the Coast Guard agreed to protect the turtles. See this Business Week article for details.
In a June appearance before the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, BP CEO Tony Hayward defended BP against accusations that the company cut corners on the design of the well, and then tried to dodge responsibility for the consequences. For a report on Hayward’s appearance before the committee, see this N.Y. Times article.
BP reportedly planned to spend $50 million to counter the massive negative publicity.
Tony Hayward: Chief Executive of BP until July 2010, when he was replaced by Robert Dudley, BP’s managing director, who was born in Mississippi. After the blowout, Hayward was criticized for downplaying the size of the spill, and for making insensitive comments. (For example, he said, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back”—words that especially offended the families of the workers who died in the accident.) His attendance at a yacht race in June drew further criticism.
Admiral Thad Allen: Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard until May, 2010. In his role as National Incident Commander, he is still coordinating the federal government’s response to the spill.
Ken Salazar: U.S. Secretary of the Interior. He has been criticized by some for the federal government’s slow response to the spill.
Billy Nungesser: President of Plaquemines Parish, a suburb of New Orleans that straddles the Mississippi River as it flows into the Gulf. He has become the most visible spokesman for residents, protesting the slow and inefficient response of both the federal government and BP to the spill.
The debate over offshore drilling
Advocates and opponents of offshore drilling have clashed at least since 1969, when a blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California created a spill of nearly 100,000 barrels. Congress imposed a moratorium on new offshore oil leasing in 1981, except in the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Alaskan coast. President George H.W. Bush banned offshore drilling in 1990 by executive order—a ban that stayed in effect until his son, President George W. Bush, lifted it in 2008. Those who argue in favor of offshore drilling say we need to increase domestic oil production in order to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; but an analysis by the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy found that increased offshore drilling would raise domestic oil production by only a small amount, with an insignificant effect on oil and gasoline prices. (For a summary of this analysis, go here.) Opponents of offshore drilling cite the environmental impact of oil spills and even routine oil production. According to the Rainforest Action Network, a single oil rig dumps more than 90,000 metric tons of drilling fluid and metal cuttings into the ocean over its lifetime, and tons of toxic metals and carcinogens as well. (See this web page for more details.)
The percentage of the oil we use that’s imported from abroad has grown from about 25% in 1970 to 66% in 2008—leading many to conclude that we need to expand offshore production, in order to make our country less dependent on foreign oil. Others, however, note that every dollar invested in offshore drilling is a dollar not invested in developing alternative energy sources.
What should we learn from this disaster?
Two things are clear: no one made sure that adequate response strategies were in place before the blowout, and no one knows how to quickly stop a leak this big. According to Wesley Warren, in a blog on the website of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The fact is there is no satisfactory remedy for an oil spill of this magnitude. We just have to pay the horrible costs playing out before our eyes.” He and many other commentators conclude that the only solution is to begin to develop clean energy sources. At minimum, the oil spill should lead to more rigorous regulation and oversight of offshore drilling—as is the practice in many European countries.
For photos of the spill
Abrahm Lustgarden, “A Stain That Won’t Wash Away,” New York Times, 4/20/12: “What the gulf spill has taught us is that no matter how bad the disaster (and the environmental impact), the potential consequences have never been large enough to dissuade BP from placing profits ahead of prudence. That might change if a real person was forced to take responsibility… Fines just don’t matter.”
Karl Rove, “Yes, the Gulf Spill is Obama’s Katrina,” Wall Street Journal Online, 5/27/10: “a lethargic Team Obama has delayed or blown off key decisions requested by state and local governments…”
Thomas L. Friedman, “Obama and the Oil Spill, N.Y. Times, 5/18/10: “President Obama’s handling of the gulf oil spill has been disappointing. I say that not because I endorse the dishonest conservative critique that the gulf oil spill is somehow Obama’s Katrina… [but because] he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction… Of course we can’t eliminate oil exploration or dependence overnight, but can we finally start?”
“BP oil spill: Where’s the government?” L.A. Times editorial, 6/2/10: “There are no proven protocols in place for responding to an oil well blowout at a depth of 5,000 feet… But once it became clear that the responsible parties had no clear fix… the administration was too slow to respond and too passive in its approach… Obama should address this calamitous emergency by convening the top minds from industry, government and academia around the world.”
“Our view on the Gulf oil spill: BP says it’s baring all; facts say something else,” USA Today editorial, 6/14/10: “…secrecy plainly has been part of the game plan since the disaster’s earliest days in April… The public will be living with the effects of this catastrophe for many years. Neither BP nor the government should be getting in the way of what the public sees as events unfold.”
To learn more about the spill, and offshore drilling
For a general explanation of how offshore drilling works, go here.
For a brief history of offshore drilling, see this Wikipedia article.
For an explanation of how the different types of rigs work, see this Wikipedia article.
For more background on the Deepwater Horizon, see this Wikipedia article.
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Last updated 4/20/12
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