BP Oil Disaster Impact and Lessons Learned
On April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill dumped more than 4.1 million barrels of crude into the Gulf region over 87 days (Walsh et al., On the Edge). The oil and gas industry developed new technologies in pursuit of valuable energy supplies, venturing into deeper waters farther from the coastline (National Commission, 85). Regulators, however, failed to keep up with the industrial expansion and new technology — often because of industry’s resistance to more effective oversight (Juhas 11). This led to a major shortfall in the supervision of offshore drilling. Companies cited for negligence included well owner BP, Switzerland-based rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton. A major blowout — a high-pressure ball of gas, mud and oil that shot up from the oil reservoir — killed eleven crewmembers and seriously injured several others (Klein 12). In the end, fire engulfed and destroyed the oil rig. The media sent the world daily images of the uncontrolled spill. It has been classified by environmental groups, politicians, everyday citizens and civic leaders as a major failure in corporate governance and social responsibility (National Commission 89).
Probable causes for the horrific accident are many. The companies involved were immediately criticized for failing to operate in a “safe and workmanlike manner” and failing to take necessary precautions to keep the well “under control at all times” (Schooner 13). It is believe that BP’s management process did not adequately identify or address risks created by late changes to well design and procedures or ensure that cement was adequately tested (National Commission 90). There is also evidence that BP, Transocean, and Halliburton failed to communicate effectively amongst themselves regarding lessons learned from an earlier near-miss disaster to crew members. As cited in the 2011 National Commission Report to the President:
“The well blew out because a number of separate risk factors, oversights, and outright mistakes combined to overwhelm the safeguards meant to prevent just such an event from happening. But most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo can be traced back to a single overarching failure — a failure of management. Better management by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean would almost certainly have prevented the blowout by improving the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced, and to properly evaluate, communicate, and address them. A blowout in deepwater was not a statistical inevitability.” (90)
There are also speculations that certain time and money-saving decisions resulted in increased safety risks that personnel had not fully considered. One cost cutting decision was to install a continuous set of threaded casing pipes from the wellhead down to the bottom of its well (Smith 28). This can be problematic in deep, high-pressure wells because it seals off the space between the casing and the bore hole, leaving workers blind to leaks that can sneak up around the casing pipe (as the BP Deepwater blowout is suspected to have done). In addition, the long string gives gas more time to percolate into the well (Klein, 13). A preferred alternative in high-pressure deepwater is a “liner” design in which drillers install and then cement in place a short string of casing in the lower reaches of the well before casing the rest of the well (National Commission 93). This design enables the driller to watch for leaks while the cement is setting. It takes a more time and is more expensive, but it is considered a much safer method.
The BP Deepwater Horizon spill is considered unique from other oil catastrophes because of its magnitude, duration, emission source and unprecedented use of dispersants and controlled burns (Schooner 15). It devastated the $3 billion fishing industry in the Gulf, which provides one-third of all seafood consumed in the U.S. (Smith 26). There have also been massive impacts to neighboring communities, businesses, and wildlife. Local residents experienced breathing difficulties, headaches, burning eyes and throats, vomiting, abdominal pains, chest pains, skin sensitization, and cardiovascular issues (National Commission 95). Children, the poor, and the elderly continue to appear to be disproportionately affected by such medical issues since the spill (Juhas 13). Complaints of ailments two years later range from persistent fatigue to headaches and chronic coughs. Experts have expressed concern over the human exposure to the crude oil, vapors, contaminated seafood and the chemical dispersants used to break the oil apart (National Commission, 91). BP and the U.S. government used a number of mitigation techniques to stop the spread of the spill — corexit, controlled burns, booms around vulnerable wetlands, skimming — but the scale and geographical scope of the spill proved too much (Sisson, 20).
BP excavated nine miles of already fragile shoreline with earth-moving equipment and altered erosion patterns with sandbag dams and sheet-metal pilings to try to keep oil out of the marshes (Schooner 15). This was detrimental because the coastal ecosystem is both a marine-life nursery and critical physical barrier protecting the local area from hurricane storm surges (Juhas 14). BP also removed hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of oil-soaked sand, hastening erosion that may weaken Louisiana’s storm defenses (Sisson 20). Giant “tar balls” and oil deposits more than 100 feet long continue to wash ashore and Tropical Storm Lee later uncovered buried oil deposits more than 18 inches thick (Smith 23).
Environment impact was substantial and overwhelming. Scientists are still assessing the effects of the estimated 170 million gallons of oil that flooded into the Gulf. More than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were found injured or dead in the six months after the spill (Weeks 682). Wildlife managers, rescue crews, scientists and researchers documented many immediate impacts of the oil to wildlife. The oil coated birds’ feathers making it impossible for them to regulate body temperature and remain buoyant on the water. Area mammals ingested oil which caused ulcers and internal bleeding. Many sea turtles were coated in oil and dead and dying deep sea corals were discovered miles from the well.
The oil disaster also contributed to an unbalanced food web, hitting at the peak breeding season for many species of fish and wildlife (Weeks 683). The oil’s toxicity is believed to have impacted egg and larval organisms immediately, diminishing or even wiping out those age classes (National Commission 97). Without these generations, population dips are sure to occur and affect food webs in the years ahead. Scientists will continue to watch fluctuations in wildlife populations for years to come. Experts cite that four years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster the herring population collapsed. Twenty years later, it is still had not recovered (Australian National Research Center, 2011).
Sea life has exhibited frightening deformities and decreased populations since the oil spill (Smith 28). Shrimp have been reported as having tumors on their heads, defects on their gills, and missing eyes. According to various fishermen, brown shrimp catch have dropped by two-thirds, white shrimp have been wiped out and overall catches are ten percent of what they normally are (Weeks, 683). In addition, there have been reports of fish without eye sockets, gill covers, and fish with large pink masses hanging off their bodies. Many blue crabs have misshapen or missing claws and holes in their shells. Tests of the oysters have revealed elevated levels of nickel and vanadium. Arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury levels also continue to be high. Prior to the spill, only one tenth of one percent of Gulf fish had lesions or sores on them. After the spill many locations showed 20% of fish having lesions with as much as 50% in other areas (Juhas 14).
Fishermen, scientists, and seafood processors blame the 2010 BP oil disaster. The solvents used to clean up the spill were powerful enough to dissolve oil, grease and rubber (Guarino, BP Oil Settlement). They were effective at clearing oil, but detrimental to the environment and humans. Prior research indicated that the dispersants had the potential to create mutations and contained chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons known to alter the chromosomes/genome of sea life (Smith 27). They were used anyway to try to cut and stem the uncontrollable spill (Weeks 683). Scientists have found significant amounts of oil on the Gulf floor, and the oil that has already washed into wetlands and beaches will likely remain for years (Juhas 15). Full environmental impact may not be seen for quite some time.
The oil spill caused a decline in commercial fishing and outdoor recreation, both of which sustained local economies (Weeks 682). Over 3 million people took recreational fishing trips in the Gulf in 2008 (National Commission 101). At the peak of the disaster, 40% of Gulf waters were closed to commercial and recreational fishing, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Schnoor 17). Many state parks were also closed leading to a dramatic loss in revenue. Gulf Coast seafood restaurants experienced disruptions in their supply chains and lost customers who feared contamination (Sisson 20). Fishermen stated that economic conditions were tough before the BP spill because of imports, high fuel prices and hurricanes, but the spill was another devastating blow to business (Walsh et al., On the Edge).
Tourism is the largest non-governmental sector of the Gulf Coast economy in Mississippi (National Commission 101). Many resorts, hotels and casinos saw canceled conventions and beach vacations which hurt business. The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau received $5 million of $15 million in tourism-marketing money BP gave Louisiana to respond to the negative publicity from the spill (Juhas 15). New Orleans in turn advertised the fact the spill was 100 miles from the French Quarter — its most popular tourist location which helped improve tourism rates. TV campaigns featured clean beaches and people swimming in Gulf waters. . The overall marketing push helped attract 8.3 million travelers in the latter half of 2010 — an estimated economic benefit of $5.3 billion for the city that year (Bruce, BP’s Image).
The Deepwater Horizon oil well was successfully capped in mid-July 2010 (National Commission 103). In an effort to reshape public perception, BP spent $93 million in corporate advertising between April and July 2010 to keep Gulf Coast residents up to speed about the recovery effort (Bruce, BP’s Image). The “Make It Right” campaign included a YouTube channel and national TV commercials, and delivered messages about the steps BP was taking to restore the Gulf Coast after the spill (Sisson 23). Initially, the campaign featured former BP CEO Tony Hayward assuring the public that BP was taking responsibility for the spill — at no expense to tax payers. The campaign was later redeveloped to include images that had outraged the public early on. For example, wildlife commercials showed the oil-soaked pelican featured on the cover of Time Magazine oil free and being released into clean waters. In a Mississippi Fishermen message, once angry fishermen were shown happy again and open for business. BP reinterpreted their role in the disaster by pushing a new agenda — “BP has got to make things right and that’s why we are here.” The ultimate goal was to improve the view of the organization in the eyes of the American public and company shareholders (Bruce, BP’s Image). Still, the campaign was criticized for being too expensive — taking dollars away from those impacted financially by the disaster (Klein 15).
BP has paid $6 billion to over 100,000 oil spill victims through a $20 billion trust it established in 2011, which makes it one of the largest class-action settlements in U.S. history (Juhas 15). The company also pledged $57 million to promote Gulf Coast tourism (Klein 20). BP has agreed to pay medical claims for cleanup and other workers who say they have illnesses related to exposure to chemicals used to disperse the oil (Weeks 683). Over $104 million in grant money was included in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement (Walsh, The Spill’s Psychic Toll). Health care services in southeastern Louisiana will get a large portion cover five years of services, include $50 million for a Primary Care Capacity Project to expand and improve access to health care in underserved coastal communities, $36 million for behavioral and mental health needs, and $4 million to train community health workers (Bruce, BP’s Settlement). Another $15 million will be used to expand environmental health expertise and literacy and finance a new online library of information about the spill.
It is hoped that at the end of the program, Gulf coastal communities will have higher quality care, more sustainable and more responsive and interlinked health care services, especially as it relates to primary care, environmental health and mental and behavioral health services (Walsh, The Spill’s Psychic Toll) The project will reach out to children and their families in particular since surveys revealed that coastal residents affected by the spill were experiencing more mental and behavioral health problems than those who were not affected (National Commission 105). Louisiana will receive $14.4 million, or 40% of the mental and behavioral health grant. Alabama and Mississippi will both receive $8.28 million or 23%, and the Florida panhandle will receive $5.04 million, or 14% (Guarino, BP Oil Settlement).
The official deadline to file BP claims is April 22, 2014, and plaintiffs are allowed to appeal the amount they are awarded. If plaintiffs accept the settlement, they are prohibited from taking further legal action against BP, although they could still pursue litigation against Transocean and Halliburton. Some of the Transocean rig workers and their families are yet to settle injury and death claims resulting from the explosion.
The spill has taught the world many lessons. The Interior Department has undergone major changes. One month after the oil spill began, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar implemented an aggressive overhaul of his department’s offshore oil and gas drilling management (Juhas 15). He announced that the much-maligned Minerals Management Service would be split into three agencies to minimize the conflict of interest created when leasing, revenue collection, and drilling inspections were done under the same umbrella. He also established more rigorous drilling and safety standards, enhanced environmental reviews, and more systematic workplace rules and regulations (Sisson 22).
The oil and gas industry, led by the American Petroleum Institute, have now created four task forces to examine deepwater drilling safety (Klein 18). Other major reform efforts include the creation of the Marine Well Containment Company and the Helix Well Containment Group to improve industry’s ability to contain a spill in deep waters (Juhas 15). New standards will benefit U.S. companies and others around the world. President Obama instituted a spill commission that determined that systemic failures throughout the industry caused the spill and that better regulatory oversight and corporate social responsibility is needed (National Commission 105).
The spill’s environmental impact is legally tied up and won’t be released until the legal challenges related to the ecological impacts are either settled or go to court, which could take years (Guarino, BP Oil Settlement). Scientists are measuring the impact in other ways, such as looking at the reproductive downturn of Gulf wildlife like shrimp as a signal of the spill’s detrimental impact. Some scientists have also linked the recent discovery of oiled, dead dolphins to the spill, but much of that information is also being kept confidential. It is clear however, that better technological methods and standards in drilling are required.
Change is evident. Regulators have toughened inspections. Oil companies have adopted more rigorous safeguards. University and corporate laboratories developing new cleanup technologies, and spill drills are now a regular part of coastal community emergency preparedness planning. Experts are looking for ways to create a more foolproof blowout preventer and safer drilling techniques. Government has greater recognition of the environmental and economic risks associated with over-reliance on fossil fuel and is working on new taxation for the burning of oil and other fuels. There is renewed effort to find cleaner, lower cost alternatives to oil — to safeguard human life, wildlife, the environment and the overall global ecology.
Australian National Research Centre for Occupational Health & Safety Regulation. Management Walk-Arounds: Lessons from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Well Blowout. Published February 2011.
Bruce, Horovitz. “BP’s image won’t be easy to clean.” USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
Guarino, M. “BP oil spill settlement: Justice for 100,000 Gulf Coast victims?” Christian Science Monitor. p. N.PAG. Web. 24 June 2012.
Juhas, Antonia. “Two Years Later: Bp’s Toxic Legacy. Special Investigation.” Nation 294.19 (2012): 11-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
Klein, Naomi. “After The Spill.” Nation 292.5 (2011): 11-18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Report to the President of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Published January 2011.
Schnoor, Jerald L. “The Gulf Oil Spill.” Environmental Science & Technology 44. (2010): 13-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
Sisson, Carmen. “Six lessons from the BP oil spill.” Christian Science Monitor 10 July 2010: 19-25. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
Smith, Pamela Ann. “The Lessons Of The BP Oil Spill.” Middle East 413 (2010): 26-29. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
Walsh, Bryan. “The Spill’s Psychic Toll.” Time 176.6 (2010): 32-34. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
Walsh, Bryan, Tim Padgett, and Michael Crowley. “On The Edge.” Time 175.23 (2010): 30-37. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2012.
Weeks, J. Putting an Ecological Price Tag on the BP Spill. CQ Researcher 21. (2011) 682-683.
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