History Timeline 2010's

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  • Detail - 2010

    April 20, 2010 - A British Petroleum deep water oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest oil spill in the history of the United States, killing eleven workers, and devastating the environment. It also severely damaged the fishing and tourism industries of gulf states.

    Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

    Deepwater Horizon was its name. A gigantic oil drilling platform 49 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Macondo Prospect of the Gulf of Mexico owned by British Petroleum was its purpose and operator. On April 20, 2010, a tragic explosion caused the death of eleven workers and an oil spill that would result in the largest spill in history. For eighty-seven days, four million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf and made its way toward shore. By the time the well was capped on July 15, 2010, and in the cleanup days ahead, $8.8 billion dollars of damage was caused to the marine and shore. A fine of $5.5 billion would be levied against BP Exploration and Production by the EPA, but those numbers would pale with the eventual outlays. By 2013, $42.2 billion in Civil and Criminal penalties and settlements had been paid by BP into a Trust Fund. By 2015, a fine of $18.7 billion had been paid by BP.

    British Petroleum (BP) was the fourth largest company in the world, producing 4 millions barrels of oil per day, in thirty countries around the globe. It and other oil industry providers were now using off shore deepwater drilling more and more often to respond to the demand that consumers used 18.7 million barrels of oil per day in the United States alone. In the Gulf of Mexico, it was estimated that there were 90 oil drilling rigs and 3,500 oil production platforms. Drilling offshore for oil in the sea was not new; it had begun in the Gulf of Mexico in 1938. Drilling beneath the ocean reached even further back, to 1896, but from wooden platforms extending from the shoreline in Summerland, California. By 1978, offshore drilling production platforms had reached one thousand feet of seawater. The technology and placement of the platforms and wells were now, by 2010, well beyond those depths.

    The Deepwater Horizon Macondo well was five thousand feet below the ocean's surface, drilling thirty thousand feet further into the earth below to reach the hydocarbon oil reserves beneath the sea. The Deepwater Horizon rig weighed thirty-three thousand tons and the derrick rose twenty stories above its deck. The pressure to extract that oil (pounds per inch pressure) was enormous and provided technological problems and risks. The one hundred and twenty-six workers on the Deepwater Horizon were attempting, in many ways, a remarkable feat to extract that oil, with tremendous risk and relatively new technological advances.

    The Macondo well had been problematic from the start. Budgeted at $96.2 million to drill, it was already $58 million over budget and six weeks past the original deadline to complete. The Deepwater Horizon rig, which cost $350 million on its own, was part of the company Transceans fleet or rigs, leased to BP for the Macondo well project. It had completed its task of drilling for oil and was in the process of cementing the well prior to putting the production into service.

    By 8:52 a.m. on April 20, the cement job was well and initial pressure reading were indicating low. Pressure tests were being conducted for the days of production when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig would be gone. However, the negative pressure test did not seem right when conducted that afternoon and into the evening. When additional tests were run, the pressure from the drill pipe was higher than appropriate, but it was concluded that this was normal enough to go forward. Within hours, mud began exploding over the rig, pointing out that there was significant problem and that the pressure seen during the negative test was significant. A blowout ensued, with flames rising up the derrick. Within minutes, the crew began to abandon the Deepwater Horizon rig, dropping into the Gulf or taking rescue boats toward a large ship, the Bankston, which had taken refuge five hundred meters away. The Bankston would rescue ninety-nine workers. The rig, for all accounts, was gone, sunk into the Gulf of Mexico within two days.

    Conclusion of the Report

    It had been five years after the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. When the Presidential Commission analyzed the reasons and subsequent conclusions for why the event occurred, who was to blame, and how to prevent a repeat of this type of disaster, they concluded the following.

    1) That the explosion could have been prevented. Mistakes made by British Petroleum, Haliburton, and Transocean (who owned the rig itself) revealed systematic failures in risk management and brought into question the practices of the entire industry.

    2) That regulatory oversight of the industry must be reformed.

    3) The oil and gas industry must independently take steps to dramatically increase safety in the industry.

    4) The gap must be closed between the technology needed to respond to such spills and the risks that deepwater drilling presented.

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    Impact of the Spill

    By the next day after the explosion, a sheen of oil was reported being seen by the Coast Guard, but not the expected major spill of seven hundred thousand gallons that would have been on the rig surface. Initial estimates of leaking were low (BP thought 1,000 barrels per day), but that did not last as additional leaks were discovered, the rig sank, and cleanup crews could not keep pace with the spill. Within one week the estimate grew to 5,000 barrels per day. Now the concerns began to multiply in the shoreline communities of Louisiana and the Gulf, still attempting to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and now having to prepare for the oil as it washed ashore.

    At the height of the subsequent response to the disaster, forty-five thousand workers and volunteers attempted to clean up the spill in the ocean and shoreline. At the height of the well's spill, the estimate rose from the initial 1,000 barrels a day to 60,000 barrels per day.

    On May 27, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar announced a six month moratorium on deep water drilling (over five hundred feet) in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean.

    By the end of the oil spill disaster, the United States Government estimated the spill at 4.9 million barrels.

    In Louisiana during 2013, 4.9 million pounds of oily material were still being removed from its beaches.

    Cost to the tourism industry of Louisiana was estimated at $22.7 billion through 2013.

    Photo above: Oil spill as it approaches Mobile Bay, Alabama, 2010, United States Navy. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: Oil booms protecting the Barrier Islands, 2010, Kris Krug. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Info source: United States Environmental Protection Agency; Final Report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, January 2011; Wikipedia Commons.

    Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

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