The British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. It is also the largest accidental spill in world history. More than 200 million gallons of crude oil and almost 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants poisoned the waters, wetlands, marine animals, fisheries and people of Louisiana and contaminated four neighboring states: Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas. The spill caused the closure of 88,522 square miles of federal waters to fishing, and affected hundreds of miles of shoreline, bayous, and bays. The full environmental, economic, social, and political consequences of the oil disaster will take years if not decades to analyze and understand.
The failed Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig that exploded and collapsed was leading a new wave of offshore oil exploration in U.S. waters approved by President Bush and backed by President Obama. The disaster occurred on April 20, just two days before the day global conservationists hail as Earth Day, killing 11 people and opening an unrelenting gusher of crude oil. Read more or Download as a PDF.
The Deepwater Horizon and Macondo Well
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was drilling the Macondo well when it exploded in the Gulf of Mexico 41 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010.
- Two days later it collapsed and fell to the sea floor where it remains.
- The rig was drilling in 5,067 ft of water. The total depth of the well was 18,360 ft below sea level (13,293 ft below the sea floor).
- The rig blew out due to human error and engineering failures in the piping systems.
- The piping failure allowed natural gas, drilling mud and sea water to shoot high above the floor of the drill ship and two explosions occurred.
- The oil well released a torrent of oil and gas into the Gulf that spewed unrelentingly for almost three months, until the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010.
- Dispersed oil remains in the water, sargassum mats, wetlands and beaches.
- Chemical dispersants also remain in the Gulf marine ecosystem.
BP Oil Spill is the World’s Worst Accidental Oil Spill
The Toll on Marine Wildlife, Fisheries and Communities
- BP-Deepwater Spill, Gulf of Mexico: Louisiana, Gulf of Mexico, 5 million barrels, 210 million U.S. gallons, April 20 to July 15, 2010.
- Exxon Valdez, Alaska: Prince William Sound, 10.8 million gallons, March 24, 1989, covering 1,100 miles of coastline. The tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef while avoiding ice in the shipping lane.
- Ixtoc (Ish-toc), Gulf of Mexico: Bay of Campeche, Mexico, 140 million gallons, June 3, 1979, to March 1980. The 2-mile-deep exploratory well blew out off Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico. The Ixtoc spill was second on the all-time list of largest oil spills of all time, until the BP Oil Spill.
- Montara, Australia: In 2009, The West Atlas rig exploded in the Timor Sea northwest of the Kimberley off the Western Australia Coast, spilling 1.2 million to 9 million gallons of crude oil. Chemical dispersants were then poured into the sea. While the spill apparently never reached shore, it contaminated large areas of one of least exploited regions of the world’s oceans.
- Worst Intentional Spill: Kuwait, Gulf War: In 1991, Saddam Hussein destroyed tankers and oil terminals releasing 6-8 million barrels (252 - 336 million gallons) of oil into the waters of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf.
- Above, an oiled sea turtle is rescued in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA photo.
Oil Spill and Clean Up Response
- Sea Turtles: More than 1,100 sea turtles were found dead or dying during the BP Oil spill and its aftermath. The spill occurred during the peak of nesting season for loggerheads and critically endangered Kemp’s ridleys. Amazingly, only a few were found visibly oiled (a total of 18). About half were found dead  and the rest alive . Many of these live sea turtles were rescued, rehabilitated and later released. A total of 278 Florida sea turtle nests were moved from the Gulf side to the Atlantic and more than 14,000 hatchlings released. A large number of the unoiled sea turtles likely died in shrimp nets where Turtle Excluder Device laws were suspended to accommodate fishing during the oil spill. The total population of sea turtles in the Gulf is unknown but probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The long-term impacts of oil exposure to sea turtles, fisheries and the environment are yet to be seen or understood.
- Cetaceans: Bottle nose dolphins were the hardest hit by the oil spill with 93 found dead. The total for all cetaceans found dead or dying during the oil spill and its aftermath totaled 103. More may have perished or simply left the Gulf during the spill. The Gulf still seems devoid of marine life months after the spill.
- Seabirds: Brown pelicans and other seabirds died by the thousands. The official count is more than 6,000 seabirds oiled and killed and nearly 2,000 found alive. Of those that survived, more than 1,300 have been released from rehabilitation.
- Fisheries: Most shrimp fisheries were closed in the region of the oil spill, and then re-opened based on government testing for oil compounds. Louisiana is the biggest shrimping state in the U.S. The deepwater red shrimp fishery was recently closed again after a fisherman returned with tarballs in his nets.
- At first, BP itself was put in charge of the oil spill response and clean-up. After a few weeks of failing to stem the leak, retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen was put in charge and the Unified Command consisting of multiple government agencies assumed leadership. Gulf coast communities who had experienced Katrina and other disasters began organizing and calling for action almost immediately. While BP executives were always at the table, non-governmental organizations and the public were basically shut out. Volunteers from around the country offering to help clean up beaches, rescue oiled wildlife and otherwise assist were turned away by the thousands. Even worse, the all-purpose public hotline was staffed by BP employees not public servants.
- Many problems came to light: Oil spill response plans were basically cut and copied from Alaskan and arctic plans, the agency that regulated offshore oil operations were found to be rubberstamping industry projects and being literally in bed with industry, oil was reaching beaches with little if any protection, and sea turtles, marine mammals and birds were receiving little help.
- Fishermen who were told not to fish and hired under the Vessels of Opportunity program were left mostly sitting at the dock. Those who went out and made any comments were taken off the list. Clean up workers were told not to wear face masks to prevent bad publicity for BP.
- Chemical Dispersants BP was given the OK by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to release chemical dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico at levels never conceived for such an incident. The sheer magnitude and extreme conditions that dispersant applications were made created a complex mixture of chemicals and effects we may never fully understand.
- Seafood Testing: Government testing never found high levels of oil or contaminants in seafood from the Gulf, but scientists, fishermen and non-governmental organizations remain concerned that testing protocols were weak. For example, much of the testing was reliant on the “sniff” method, not any laboratory analysis. Seafood was never tested for heavy metals or many other contaminants.
Gulf of Mexico Restoration Plans
The government’s response to this latest disaster is guided primarily by the Clean Water Act of 1977 (CWA), the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), and related regulations. A number of government processes are now underway in an attempt to determine the extent of the damages to the Gulf of Mexico and its people and environment. President Obama appointed a BP Oil Spill Commission that is now holding town meetings across the Gulf. BP has paid the U.S. government $600 million to date to pay for clean-up and restoration. To monitor the U.S government processes now underway to restore the Gulf of Mexico, see the following websites: http://www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/