The Deepwater Horizon spill started 10 years ago. Its effects are still playing out. (2022)

ByAlejandra Borunda

Published April 20, 2020

13 min read

The BP oil spill of 2010 started suddenly, explosively, and with deadly force. But the response has stretched out for years and scientists say there’s still much more we need to learn.

As a crew on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig worked to close up an exploratory oil well deep under the Gulf of Mexico, a pulse of gas shot up, buckling the drill pipe. The emergency valve designed to cap the well in case of an accident, the “blowout protector,” failed, and the gas reached the drill rig, triggering an explosion that killed 11 crewmembers.

(Video) 10 years later: Scientists learn long-term impact of Deepwater Horizon spill

Over the next three months, the uncapped well leaked more than 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools of oil into the Gulf’s waters, making it the biggest oil spill in United States history. The leak pumped out 12 times more oil than the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.

The spill opened many people’s eyes to the risks of drilling for oil in one of the most ecologically rich, culturally important, and economically valuable parts of the world. But 10 years and billions of dollars in cleanup efforts later, many of the same risks that allowed the disaster to occur remain.

“It took the better part of six to seven years [after the disaster] to get in place the inspection of blowout preventers and rules about making drilling plans safer and putting commonsense regulations in place, but those have been rescinded,” says Ian MacDonald, a scientist at Florida State University. “So basically we’re back to where we were in 2010, in terms of regulatory environment.”

And in some ways, more is known now than ever before about the Gulf and how the spill affected its ecosystems.

“We’re just to the point now where we have enough data to recognize things we missed earlier, and there’s still a lot we don’t know,” says Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Can this kind of spill happen again?

About 17 percent of the U.S.’s total crude oil production comes from offshore projects in the Gulf. Pipelines—26,000 miles of them—connect wells to the processing infrastructure that lines the coast. Before plummeting demand from the coronavirus pandemic drove already-low oil prices lower, the Gulf of Mexico was producing as much crude oil as it had in years.

“Even in times of low prices like today, offshore just keeps going on,” says Gregory Upton, Jr., an energy economist at Louisiana State University.

And drilling for oil in deep offshore waters is inherently dangerous for the people working the platforms, as well as potentially for the environments they’re drilling in.

“Working on the ultra-deep stuff is pretty much like working in outer space,” say Mark Davis, a water law expert at Tulane University.

But conditions on the Deepwater Horizon rig were particularly concerning. After the spill, the commission created by the Obama administration to investigate the spill reached stark, damning conclusions. Many lapses in safety had contributed to the disaster, many of which traced back to a culture both within BP and the industry more broadly that did not value safety enough.

A new agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), was created to track and enforce offshore drilling safety issues, something that had been handled by the same agency that approved leases to oil companies.

(Video) Deepwater Horizon: Impacts of the Spill Ten Years Later

“Before Deepwater, there was this mentality that had set in in the 1990s and 2000s, that the oil and gas industry, as it was going farther offshore, was capable of self-regulating,” says Matt Lee Ashley, a researcher at the Center for American Progress. “Then Deepwater happened and burst that set of assumptions.”

BSEE announced a new set of safety rules for offshore operations in 2016. Among those rules was one that required blowout protectors—the piece that had failed at Deepwater Horizon—to be inspected by a third party, rather than self-certified by the drilling companies. But many of those rules, as well as other safety practices put in place after the disaster, have been weakened in recent years. Most notably, in 2019 the Trump administration finalized rollbacks of several components of the 2016 rules, including the independent safety certification for blowout protectors and bi-weekly testing.

Inspections and safety checks by BSEE have also declined some 13 percent between 2017 and 2019 and there have been nearly 40 percent less enforcement activities in that time compared to previous years, according to Lee Ashley’s analysis.

Today, more than 50 percent of Gulf oil production comes from ultra-deep wells drilled in 4,500 feet or more of water, compared with about 4,000 feet for Deepwater Horizon. The deeper the well, the more the risk: A 2013 study showed that for every hundred feet deeper a well is drilled, the likelihood of a company self-reported incident like a spill or an injury increased by more than 8 percent.

Terry Garcia, former deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a member of a major safety commission convened after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, worries that the safety changes in the years after the disaster didn’t extend broadly enough, either.

“We have this tendency to fight the last war, to prepare for the last incident that occurred,” he says. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, for example, new laws and regulations were enacted to deal with future tanker spills. But that focus on the future didn’t happen for oil rigs, and the next disaster is unlikely to look exactly like Deepwater.

Another concern, says Scott Eustis, the science director at the Louisiana-based Healthy Gulf, a group that focuses on marine protection, comes from the ever-increasing pressures of climate change. Louisiana, which has the most comprehensive climate adaptation plan in the region, is expecting the number and intensity of major hurricanes to increase within the next 50 years. Each storm that blows through the Gulf threatens offshore drilling infrastructure.

“Since Deepwater Horizon, we’ve taken two steps forward and one step back, and that one step back is worrying because we could very much end up in a similar situation,” says Lee Ashley.

What we know about the spill’s effects

After the spill, BP agreed to pay out more than $20 billion in penalties and damages, with around $13 billion directed toward restoration and a vast research effort in the region.

But scientists realized they lacked much of the basic background science necessary to predict where, when, and how the oil would spread or what its impacts on the region would be.

At first, it was difficult even to assess how much oil spilled from the well. Early initial assessments were low—but satellite imagery revealed that there was much more oil than had been reported. The final tally showed that the spill dumped more than 200 million gallons of oil.

(Video) Full Impact Of BP Oil Spill 10 Years Later

Oil continued to sink to the ocean floor for more than a year, a recent study shows. It changed the amounts of sediment collecting on the bottom of the sea for years afterward and choked them of oxygen. Immediately after the spill, the 1,300 miles of contaminated coasts saw oil concentrations 100 times higher than background levelsl even eight years later, concentrations were 10 times higher than before the spill. And In February of this year, a study showed that the footprint of the oil spread some 30 percent wider than previously estimated, potentially contaminating many more fish communities than previously thought.

Scientists are still figuring out exactly how the oil impacted the biology of the Gulf, but the immediate effect was to turn the seafloor near the well site into a “toxic waste dump,” one study said. Studies are also showing that reef fish changed drastically after the spill; that fish absorbed some of the oil-sourced contaminants; and that ecological communities throughout the water column, from tiny bacteria to deep sea corals to arthropods, could take decades to recover.

(Read about how the effects of the spill are still reverberating in dolphins).

“It’s astounding,” says Joye. “We underestimated so many of the impacts when we were first looking.” Only after a decade of sustained observation, she says, have the true impacts of the spill started to become clear.

(Read about how pelican habitat on the Louisiana coast is being restored after the spill).

What we learned about the Gulf

The paradoxical effect of the spill is that scientists know more about the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the physics, ecology, and chemistry of oil spills, than they ever would have otherwise.

It was clear from the moment the spill began that there were many basic science questions that were unknown about this area of the world, like ocean currents and wind patterns, knowledge gaps that hindered the recovery process.

“The first fundamental issue we faced in 2010 was a chronic lack of baseline data,” says Joye.

For example, no high-resolution map of the seafloor existed, information that would have helped scientists understand where the bottom-dwelling creatures of the Gulf might be affected. Driven by the disaster, federal scientists produced a map in 2016.

“It was crucial to be able to detect and predict where the oil would go,” says Oscar Garcia Pineda, a satellite expert. In 2010, it took days to get satellite images downloaded and processed; today the response time is about 20 minutes, he says. In conjunction with studies that used drifters, boats, drones, and other techniques, scientists have deepened their understanding of the Gulf’s restless movements.

But there’s much more still to learn, say Joye and MacDonald; it’s crucial to set up long-term monitoring programs so scientists can be better prepared for the inevitable next disaster.

(Video) How the BP Oil Spill Happened 10 years on: The Deepwater Horizon Disaster

“We need much better oceanographic data,” says MacDonald, “so we’re not trying to model after the fact whether Florida is going to get hit by this oil spill, or if it’ll go the other way.”

And other knowledge gaps also engender risk. For example, a 2004 hurricane triggered underwater landslides at another drilling site in the Gulf. The mudslide broke the drilling rig away from the well, leaving it leaking hundreds of barrels a day. But the mudslide risk across the Gulf hasn’t yet been thoroughly mapped out.

“There was a dearth of knowledge. It’s that old adage, ‘you can’t manage what you don’t understand’—well, you can’t protect what you don’t understand,” says Garcia.

Why is there drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?

The reason the Deepwater Horizon well existed in the first place? Hundreds of billions of barrels of fossil fuel energy are buried deep beneath the Gulf’s seafloor.

Oil seeps from the floor of the Gulf naturally, in small volumes. The phenomenon has been long known to people who lived and traveled along its marshy shores and coastlines. Hernan de Soto, a Spanish explorer who sailed through the Gulf in 1543, used the gummy oil his sailors collected from the beaches to patch up his wooden ships. Tribal communities gathered tar that caught in the tangled cordgrass of the sandy barrier islands and used it for art and to waterproof pots.

Offshore drilling began in the late 1930s. The first site, Louisiana’s Creole platform, squatted just a mile and a half off the coast, its wooden legs sprouting up through water 14 feet deep.

By the 1950s, engineers were gaining ambition and confidence, nudging the limits of their drilling activities deeper and deeper, following the long, broad slope of the seafloor that tilted away from the Gulf’s shores. By 2000, over 300 operating oil rigs and thousands of platforms dotted the wide, shallow slope. But they pushed further, out to where the ground drops away sharply. Geologists’ glimpses into that underground world, from seismic observations and experimental drill holes, hinted at millions of barrels of oil lurking below, if only the drillers could get to it.

The Deepwater Horizon well, drilled in 2009, pushed the limits of that deep drilling. At its creation, it was the deepest well ever drilled, punching over 35,000 feet down into the ground below the sea, in water over 4,000 feet deep.

(Video) Remembering Deepwater Horizon, 10 Years Later

FAQs

Is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still affecting the environment? ›

Small amounts of highly weathered oil residues from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster were still present in the surroundings ten years later, shows a new report.

What effects did the Deepwater Horizon have? ›

The largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history

The scientists concluded that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed thousands of marine mammals and sea turtles, and contaminated their habitats.

How did the Deepwater Horizon affect humans? ›

A similar study found that citizens on the Gulf Coast had increased levels of anxiety, depression, and respiratory issues that lasted for several years after the catastrophe. Other coastal residents had similar symptoms including skin rashes, muscle cramps, pneumonia, migraines, and much more.

Who was affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? ›

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill adversely affected wildlife throughout the Gulf of Mexico, including marine mammals, sea turtles, birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Is the Deepwater Horizon still leaking oil? ›

After several failed efforts to contain the flow, the well was declared sealed on 19 September 2010. Reports in early 2012 indicated that the well site was still leaking. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is regarded as one of the largest environmental disasters in world history.

How does an oil spill affect the economy? ›

Economic impacts of oil spills generally include cost of clean-up and compensation, damage to agricultural lands, fishery and wildlife. Social impact on the other hand includes community conflicts, violence and frustration which leads to militancy, reduction in tourism and hospitality industries.

How long did the Deepwater Horizon oil spill take to clean-up? ›

Nine years ago, BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, causing the worst oil spill in US history. The disaster on April 20, 2010 killed 11 workers as the flaming rig sank into the Gulf of Mexico. It took nearly three months to stem the flow of oil from the ruptured undersea well.

How was Deepwater Horizon cleaned up? ›

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, clean-up workers treated the oil with over 1.4 million gallons of various chemical dispersants. Typically such large amounts are sprayed over the open ocean from an airplane or helicopter.

What are 3 negative effects of oil on the environment? ›

Environmental impact of oil

Oil pollution can have a devastating effect on the water environment, it spreads over the surface in a thin layer that stops oxygen getting to the plants and animals that live in the water. Oil pollution: harms animals and insects. prevents photosynthesis in plants.

What are the long term effects of an oil spill? ›

Large scale persistent ecological effects included impacts to deep ocean corals, failed recruitment of oysters over multiple years, damage to coastal wetlands, and reduced dolphin, sea turtle, and seabird populations.

How did the Deepwater Horizon Affect the Economy? ›

And while long-term damage estimates vary, a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences determined that over seven years, the oil spill could have a $8.7 billion impact on the economy of the Gulf of Mexico including losses in revenue, profit, wages, and close to 22,000 jobs.

How do oil spills affect humans? ›

Studies of biomarkers have uncovered irreparable harm to humans exposed to oil and gas from spills. These effects can be grouped into respiratory damage, liver damage, decreased immunity, increased cancer risk, reproductive damage and higher levels of some toxics (hydrocarbons and heavy metals).

Is the Deepwater Horizon still on the ocean floor? ›

The Deepwater Horizon rig continues to sit on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in water that is over 5,000 feet in depth.

What changed after the Deepwater Horizon? ›

In response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in U.S. history were launched.

What lessons were learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? ›

For instance, some of the things learned include the need to improve the following:
  • Disaster training. The loss of control which led to the well entrance gap is a serious issue that needs attention. ...
  • Rig safety. ...
  • Rescue response. ...
  • Clean-up response. ...
  • Environmental safety.

How many people survived the Deepwater Horizon explosion? ›

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, 11 workers lost their lives. 17 others were injured. In total, there were 126 crew members on the rig at the time of the explosion. 94 of the workers who survived were taken by lifeboat and 17 were evacuated by helicopter.

Who is most affected by oil spills? ›

What Creatures Are Most Affected by Oil Spills? Since most oils float, the creatures most affected by oil are animals like sea otters and seabirds that are found on the sea surface or on shorelines if the oil comes ashore.

What is good about oil spills? ›

Oil spills are actually good for birds, fish, and the economy according to the oil industry. For the past few weeks, the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) has been holding hearings on the matter of a proposed oil-by-rail terminal that could be built in Vancouver, Washington.

How are oil spills bad for the environment? ›

When oils rigs or machinery malfunction or break, thousands of tons of oil can seep into the environment. Oil spill effects on environments and habitats can be catastrophic: they can kill plants and animals, disturb salinity/pH levels, pollute air/water and more.

How do we clean up an oil spill? ›

Dispersants and booms and skimmers are the most frequently used methods to clean up ocean oil spills. All methods have advantages and disadvantages. The effectiveness depends on the situation – the amount and type of oil, the ocean currents and tides and the weather. Some methods can be harmful to the environment.

What are some solutions to our oil problem? ›

Lower oil demand, more security

There are three primary methods to reduce oil use: Make vehicles significantly more fuel efficient while commercializing electric vehicles. Develop cleaner, alternative non-oil-based fuels. Invest in public transportation to provide practical, accessible, economical alternatives to ...

How much oil is left in the world? ›

The world has proven reserves equivalent to 46.6 times its annual consumption levels. This means it has about 47 years of oil left (at current consumption levels and excluding unproven reserves).

How can we stop oil drilling? ›

5 Ways Businesses Can Fight Oil Drilling
  1. Encourage Comments to Engage Legal Action. This feature is only available on The Inertia+ ...
  2. Pass a Local Resolution to Ban Drilling. ...
  3. Support State Legislation. ...
  4. Plan and Participate in Local Events. ...
  5. Show the Federal Administration that Businesses Oppose Oil Drilling.
25 Jul 2017

How long does oil spill damage last? ›

The effects of a small spill can take 15 years to completely disappear, while for a larger spill this may take a lot longer.

How long does oil stay in the environment? ›

Even for a relatively small leak or spill, oil can remain in soil for decades, typically 20-30 years. While it tends to stay contained near the source, it can be carried elsewhere in your area through groundwater.

How much does it cost to clean up an oil spill? ›

Survey data indicated that spills that had time to spread to groundwater were significantly more expensive to clean up.  Most cleanups completed in four months or less: $20,000 or less.  Typical cleanup cost range: $20,000 to $50,000.  Average cleanup costs involving both soil and groundwater: $90,000.

How did Deepwater Horizon affect oil prices? ›

Market value

BP's stock fell by 51% in 40 days on the New York Stock Exchange, going from $60.57 on 20 April 2010, to $29.20 on 9 June, its lowest level since August 1996. On 25 June, BP's market value reached a 1-year low. The company's total value lost since 20 April was $105 billion.

How much did it cost to clean up the BP oil spill? ›

BP also paid about $15 billion in cleanup costs and another $20 billion in economic damages to companies and individuals harmed by the spill.

How can we prevent oil spills from happening in the future? ›

Don't overfill fuel tanks—fill to only 90 percent capacity to reduce the chance of spills. Use oil absorbent pads in the bilges of all boats with inboard engines. Regularly inspect through-hull fittings often to reduce the risk of sinking. Recycle used oil and filters.

Can you swim in oil spill? ›

Avoid any direct skin contact with the oil. If oil does touch you, wash it off immediately with soap and water. Don't try to swim or enter any waters that may have been affected by the oil spill.

How do oil spills affect humans and animals? ›

Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water repellency of a bird's feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements. Without the ability to repel water and insulate from the cold water, birds and mammals will die from hypothermia.

How does oil spills affect the environment? ›

Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water repellency of a bird's feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements. Without the ability to repel water and insulate from the cold water, birds and mammals will die from hypothermia.

How long did it take to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? ›

Nine years ago, BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, causing the worst oil spill in US history. The disaster on April 20, 2010 killed 11 workers as the flaming rig sank into the Gulf of Mexico. It took nearly three months to stem the flow of oil from the ruptured undersea well.

What ecosystem was mainly impacted by the Deepwater Horizon incident? ›

The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill impacted all Gulf ecotypes, as oil and dispersants moved from the deep ocean to shorelines.

How did the Deepwater Horizon oil spill affect the atmosphere? ›

About 4% of oil burned during cleanup efforts became soot particles that entered the atmosphere. The burned oil also released NOx, which reacts to form ozone in the atmosphere and is a main component of smog.

How are humans affected by oil spills? ›

Studies of biomarkers have uncovered irreparable harm to humans exposed to oil and gas from spills. These effects can be grouped into respiratory damage, liver damage, decreased immunity, increased cancer risk, reproductive damage and higher levels of some toxics (hydrocarbons and heavy metals).

How can we help oil spills? ›

You have several options. One is to call the official volunteer hotline at 1-866-448-5816, which is run by BP. Volunteers are needed to help "preclean" beaches — by picking up trash and other debris so that oil cleanup will be more effective.

What is a possible solution to oil pollution? ›

1. Shoreline Flushing/Washing: Water hoses can rinse oil from the shoreline into the water, where it can be more easily collected. 2. Booms: Long, floating, interconnected barriers are used to minimize the spread of spilled oil.

How many animals died because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? ›

We found that the spill likely harmed or killed about 82,000 birds of 102 species; about 6,165 sea turtles; as many as 25,900 marine mammals; and a vast (but unknown) number of fish — from the great bluefin tuna to our nation's smallest seahorse — plus oysters, crabs, corals and other creatures.

How do oil spills affect the economy? ›

Economic impacts of oil spills generally include cost of clean-up and compensation, damage to agricultural lands, fishery and wildlife. Social impact on the other hand includes community conflicts, violence and frustration which leads to militancy, reduction in tourism and hospitality industries.

Does oil spill affect air quality? ›

Crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons, made up of light, medium and heavy chemicals. The light parts include air toxics such as benzene, xylene, toluene and ethylbenzene. Concentrations of these in the air tend to be highest during the first 24 hours of a spill. These toxics are harmful to breathe.

What happens when oil is spilled in the ocean? ›

Depending on the circumstances, oil spills can be very harmful to marine birds, sea turtles and mammals, and also can harm fish and shellfish. Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water-repelling abilities of a bird's feathers, exposing them to the harsh elements.

Videos

1. Deepwater Horizon: lessons learned 10 years later
(10 Tampa Bay)
2. Lessons from Deep Water Horizon - 10 years later
(Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
3. 10 Years Later: Understanding The Impact of The BP Oil Spill | NBC 6
(NBC 6 South Florida)
4. Deepwater Horizon disaster, five years later
(CBC News: The National)
5. Restoring the Gulf: 10 Years After Deepwater Horizon
(NOAA Fisheries)
6. Deepwater Horizon: 10 Years Later Impact on the Gulf's Marine Ecosystem Persists
(University of South Florida)

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