"So many aspects of this oil spill were unique -- that it was an offshore, deep-water blowout; that both methane and oil were released from the wellhead into the pelagic ocean; that dispersants were used at both the sea surface and sea floor," — these words of Dr. Samantha Joye describe the distinctive characteristics of the worst marine environmental disaster in United States waters ever, and the deepest blowout and spill ever.
The 87-day discharge from the Macondo well (April 20–July 15, 2010) resulted from high-pressure methane gas expanding into the drilling riser and up to the drilling platform where it ignited and exploded. The rig burned until it sank on April 22; the riser pipe broke loose and oil spewed from the wellhead that was 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Attempts to close the blowout preventer, install a containment dome, and pump heavy drilling fluids into the blowout preventer (top kill) all failed. It was not until July 15 that the wellhead was capped. The federal government declared the well “effectively dead” on September 19, 2010, when a relief well was completed. In the meantime, 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of crude oil was discharged as was an additional 1.55–3 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) of natural gas. Some of the discharge was seen in the form of underwater plumes emanating from the wellhead and travelling through the water column.
The disaster resulted in the deaths of 11 workers and injuries to 17 others. The environment also experience death and injury. Oil slicks extended for hundreds of miles, and approximately 2,900 square miles of ocean floor near the wellhead were covered with a layer of oil, presumably from the blowout. One thousand miles of shoreline in five US states were contaminated with the oil, and tar balls containing deadly bacteria continue to wash ashore.
The immediate response to the spill involved 6,500 vessels, 125 planes, 48,000 responders, and globally-resourced equipment. Cleanup efforts included containment (booms above and below surface), removal (burning, filtering, and collecting), and dispersal (application of chemicals). The use of an estimated 2 million or more of the toxic dispersants Corexit EC9500A and EC9527A on the surface, as well as at the wellhead itself, changed the droplet size and nature of the oil, causing it to sink to the bottom of the ocean. The fate of the oil and gas—whether by evaporation, dissolution, dispersal (natural or chemical), burning, containment, skimming, direct recovery from the wellhead, or microbial consumption—remains controversial, but there seems to be no doubt that a great deal of oil remains on the bottom of the Gulf.
Fishing was curtailed voluntarily and by law, and tourism declined dramatically as a result of the contaminated waters and beaches. The health of the ecosystems and marine life shows mild to severe harm, but the full cascading effects will be fully known only after years or decades of observation.
The tangled web of political and legal fallout is far from over. Determining the exact amount of oil spilled has been controversial since the incident began because many of the potential penalties to the responsible parties under the U.S. Clean Water Act are determined based upon that quantity. Those penalties are calculated at $1,100 per barrel spilled or $4,300 per barrel spilled if gross negligence is found to have been involved. At the civil level, on February 27, 2012, a trial was to start in federal court regarding the amount of blame attributable to the various parties (BP, Transocean, and Halliburton) and whether punitive damages should be imposed. That trial was postponed due to settlement negotiations. In the meantime, the Justice Department, on August 31, 2012, filed a brief in the case involving claims by private plaintiffs, which has a proposed settlement pending (see below), sharply describing the conduct of BP and its executives as grossly negligent. Negotations and last-minute attempts at settlement failed in the civil suit again BP. The trial started on February 25, 2013. Criminal settlements have been made, including $4 billion from BP. Transocean agreed to pay $1.4 billion, including a $400 million criminal fine.
The class action suit and the postponed trial both were affected when Hurricane Issac hit the Gulf and its coast August 28, 2012, and churned up oil, depositing tarballs on beaches and reoiling marshlands. After several days, BP acknowledged that some of the oil being seen was from the Macondo well.
On April 24, 2012, two years after the blowout, the first arrest pertaining to the spill was made; Kurt Mix, a BP engineer, allegedly destroyed 100s of text messages that damningly described high volumes of oil flowing from the well—higher than the amounts BP publicly espoused. More arrests for this behavior and other criminal actions leading up to, during, and after the incident are possible.
The spill response fund of $20 billion that BP agreed with the government to create does not cap BP’s liability, but it is an attempt to minimize lawsuits against the company. Claims by thousands of fishermen, coastal businesses, and state and local governments for economic losses incurred as a result of the spill have been met with payouts in return for no further action in court. But the process has been wrought with controversy. In April, 2012, the US Department of Justice determined that claimants were not getting their share and that some 7,300 residents and businesses were due an additional $64 million. The fund has received nearly one million claims, with the numbers increasing daily. For those opting to sue in court, in March, 2012, BP agreed in principle to pay $7.8 billion to settle more than 100,000 claims by private plaintiffs. The court is expected to decide whether to approve that settlement proposal in Fall, 2012.
On July 12, 2012, the RESTORE ACT (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012) became law. It dedicates 80% of any Clean Water Act penalties imposed upon responsible parties for the spill to the management and financing of the Gulf Coast's (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas) recovery.
On November 15, 2012, BP reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges related to the rig explosion and death of 11 people and to pay $4.5 billion in fines and penalties. The New York Times gives a good overview of the settlement and other pending legal matters in its November 15 report. Of the settlement money, $350 million will be paid over five years to the National Academy of Sciences to establish a program focused on human health and environmental protection in the Gulf of Mexico. See the NAS statement. On November 15, 2012, the Justice Department also indicted three BP employees: Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza for manslaughter for the 11 deaths and David Rainey for making false estimates of the flow rate and obstruction of Congress. The New York Times story. Civil suits and settlements remain pending along with additional penalties, fines, and payouts.
A January 21, 2013, Congressional Research Service report titled Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Activities and Ongoing Developments summarizes to date the oil spill response, fate of the oil, economic claims and other payments, civil and criminal settlements, NRDA and Gulf coast restoration, Congressional activity, executive branch activities, and independent inquiries.
For a summary timeline as of February 24, 2013, see BP Gulf of Mexico Spill, From Disaster to Trial: Timeline.
Damage to the various ecosystems touched by the oil spill range from minimal to severe. Marine life is showing varying signs of distress, but the root cause is yet to be determined. Huge numbers of dead dolphins, deformed and lesioned fish, completely unproductive oyster beds, and dead corals and other bottom-dwelling life are but a few of the evident irregularities since the spill. Because oil remains on the bottom and continues to wash up on the beaches, the damage will continue and recovery may take decades.
The resources pertaining to the spill are numerous and many can be found through the links from this site to research articles, news articles, bibliographies, videos, and more. Because the story is ongoing, it is beyond the scope of this web site to detail the various aspects of the spill and its consequences. But the links provided are avenues to more information on all aspects of the spill.