Ten Years After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, We’re on Course to Repeat One of Our Worst Mistakes

Tara Lohan April 20, 2020

The U.S. Coast Guard conducts a controlled burn of oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, which exploded on April 20, 2010 and spilled 168 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast.

Edi­tor’s Note: This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by The Rev­e­la­tor, a pub­li­ca­tion of the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diversity.

It’s been 10 years since flames engulfed the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mex­i­co, killing 11 work­ers and trig­ger­ing the largest acci­den­tal oil spill in U.S. his­to­ry. The result­ing 168 mil­lion gal­lons of oil that spewed into the water for 87 days killed thou­sands of birds, tur­tles, dol­phins, fish and oth­er animals.

The messy slick washed up on 1,300 miles of beach­es, coat­ed wet­lands with tox­ic chem­i­cals, imper­iled human health, crip­pled the region’s tourism sec­tor and shut down fish­eries — cost­ing near­ly $1 bil­lion in loss­es to the seafood industry.

In the years since, sci­en­tists have stud­ied the far-reach­ing and long­stand­ing eco­log­i­cal dam­ages. And it’s clear that prob­lems persist.

A decade lat­er, what have we learned? Are we any clos­er to pre­vent­ing a sim­i­lar — or worse — cat­a­stro­phe? Here are some of the takeaways.

1. The spill was big­ger than they told us.

Right from the start, indus­try down­played the size and scope of the spill. The Uni­fied Com­mand formed to deal with the dis­as­ter con­sist­ed of offi­cials from fed­er­al agen­cies, as well as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of BP — the oil com­pa­ny respon­si­ble for the mess.

Inde­pen­dent analy­sis using dai­ly satel­lite images from NASA done by the con­ser­va­tion tech­nol­o­gy non­prof­it SkyTruth, along with Ian R. Mac­Don­ald, a pro­fes­sor of oceanog­ra­phy at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty, found that the amount of oil gush­ing from the failed Macon­do well was like­ly 20 times greater than what offi­cials were claim­ing at the time. Sci­en­tists hop­ing to mea­sure the flow direct­ly at the seafloor were blocked.

The obfus­ca­tion came with a big cost. What fol­lowed was a series of under-engi­neered attempts to stop the flow of oil, wast­ing weeks of pre­cious time as mil­lions of gal­lons gushed into the Gulf,” recalls John Amos, pres­i­dent of SkyTruth.

2. Most oth­er spills are big­ger than report­ed, too.

Research in the Gulf of Mex­i­co fol­low­ing the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter also led to oth­er find­ings about drilling in the region. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the size of most spills is underreported.

This cul­ture of mis­in­for­ma­tion doesn’t emerge just dur­ing cat­a­stro­phes,” says Amos.

It turns out that slicks report­ed to the Nation­al Response Cen­ter were 13 times larg­er than pro­vid­ed esti­mates, accord­ing to research con­duct­ed by Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty and SkyTruth. And while com­pa­nies can get in trou­ble for not report­ing a spill, they don’t get penal­ized if they incor­rect­ly esti­mate the size of a spill, the analy­sis found.

And these spills are ongo­ing, with more than 18,000 report­ed in the Gulf since the mam­moth 2010 dis­as­ter. While many of them are small, their cumu­la­tive impact is not.

3. Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon isn’t the worst-case scenario.

A mas­sive spill from a well that can’t be plugged for months is tru­ly trou­bling, but there’s a worse sce­nario: a spill that can’t be stopped at all. And that slow­ly unfurl­ing dis­as­ter has already been under­way — it just wasn’t wide­ly known until researchers began inves­ti­gat­ing the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill.

A hur­ri­cane in 2004 trig­gered an under­wa­ter mud­slide in Gulf waters that sank an oil-drilling plat­form owned by Tay­lor Ener­gy. The mess of pipes, still con­nect­ed to wells but cov­ered by a heap of sed­i­ment, result­ed in a leak that con­tin­ues to this day.

A study by Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion and Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty in 2019 deter­mined that the wells may be spew­ing 380 to 4,500 gal­lons of oil a day — about 100 to 1,000 times more than the com­pa­ny has claimed.

After sev­er­al attempts by Tay­lor Ener­gy to cap the wells and con­tain the plumes didn’t do the trick, in 2019 the U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to have a con­tain­ment sys­tem installed to catch the oil before it dis­pers­es into the waters.

4. Nat­ur­al forces remain a threat.

A deep-sea mud­slide like the one that dam­aged the Tay­lor Ener­gy plat­form could pose a threat to dozens of pro­duc­tion plat­forms in the Gulf. Flori­da State’s Mac­Don­ald, who has been study­ing the leak­ing Tay­lor Ener­gy site, believes such an event could hap­pen again.

Trig­gered by earth­quakes or hur­ri­canes, under­wa­ter avalanch­es of sed­i­ment slip down the con­ti­nen­tal shelf moved by tur­bid­i­ty cur­rents.” And we’re not well pre­pared for under­stand­ing how and when it could reoccur.

Con­duct­ing stud­ies to iden­ti­fy unsta­ble slopes will improve our under­stand­ing of the seabed,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Con­ver­sa­tion. Bet­ter tech­nol­o­gy can make off­shore infra­struc­ture more durable, and informed reg­u­la­tion can make the off­shore indus­try more vigilant.”

5. There’s no such thing as a cleanup.”

smoke and flames on the water

A con­trolled burn of oil from the Deep­wa­ter Horizon/​BP oil spill sends tow­ers of fire hun­dreds of feet into the air over the Gulf of Mex­i­co on June 9, 2010. (Pho­to by Coast Guard Pet­ty Offi­cer First Class John Mas­son / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Efforts that began in the after­math of dis­as­ter should be termed spill response,” and not cleanup,” says Lois Epstein, an engi­neer and Arc­tic pro­gram direc­tor for The Wilder­ness Society.

Stud­ies of pre­vi­ous spills have shown that oiled birds cleaned” after spills usu­al­ly fail to mate and suf­fer high mor­tal­i­ty rates.

The use of booms, skim­ming, burn­ing and the dump­ing of dis­per­sants hasn’t proven effec­tive in con­tain­ing large spills — and seems to hap­pen more to give the illu­sion that something’s being done, explains an arti­cle in Hakai Mag­a­zine.

Dur­ing the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill, only around 3% of the oil spilled was recov­ered from skim­ming, says Epstein. About 5% was burned off. And while dis­per­sants decreased the vol­ume of sur­face oil by about 20%, they increased the area over which the oil spread by near­ly 50%.

Some advances have actu­al­ly been made in improv­ing the tech­nol­o­gy, but there’s lit­tle incen­tive and no legal require­ment for com­pa­nies to upgrade their exist­ing spill response equip­ment,” says Epstein.

6. The Prob­lems Run Deep

Some of the most con­cern­ing find­ings from post-spill research came from the depths of the sea.

Research in 2017 found that, the seafloor was unrec­og­niz­able from the healthy habi­tats in the deep Gulf of Mex­i­co, marred by wreck­age, phys­i­cal upheaval and sed­i­ments cov­ered in black, oily marine snow,” wrote Craig McClain, the exec­u­tive direc­tor for the Louisiana Uni­ver­si­ties Marine Con­sor­tium, one of the sci­en­tists involved.

It’s like­ly that mil­lions of gal­lons of oil end­ed up on the seafloor because of a process known as marine oil snow” where chem­i­cals from burn­ing oil, along with dis­per­sants and oth­er sed­i­ment in the water, adhere and sink.

For life at the bot­tom, that dirty bliz­zard was incred­i­bly harmful.

The researchers not­ed that ani­mals nor­mal­ly found in that deep-sea envi­ron­ment, such as sea cucum­bers, giant isopods, glass sponges and whip corals, weren’t there. And many colonies of deep-sea corals hadn’t recovered.

What we observed was a homoge­nous waste­land, in great con­trast to the rich het­ero­gene­ity of life seen in a healthy deep sea,” McClain explained. In an ecosys­tem that mea­sures longevi­ty in cen­turies and mil­len­nia, the impact of 4 mil­lion bar­rels of oil con­tin­ues to con­sti­tute a cri­sis of epic proportions.”

7. The effects on wildlife were both sig­nif­i­cant and, in some cas­es, sus­tained.

oiled pelicans

Heav­i­ly-oiled brown pel­i­cans cap­tured at Grand Isle, La. on June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude. (Pho­to: Inter­na­tion­al Bird Res­cue Research Cen­ter / CC BY 2.0)

The spill caused prob­lems at the sur­face too, includ­ing the longest known marine mam­mal die-off in the Gulf of Mex­i­co, and experts say it could take many species decades to recover.

For exam­ple, a report from Oceana found that in the five years fol­low­ing the spill, 75% of bot­tle-nosed dol­phin preg­nan­cies failed. Endan­gered Bryde’s whales lost 22% of their already small pop­u­la­tion; 32% of laugh­ing gulls in the Gulf died, and as many as 20% of adult female Kemp’s rid­ley sea tur­tles, already crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered, were killed in the spill.

Threat­ened pop­u­la­tions of gulf stur­geon exposed to the oil expe­ri­enced immune sys­tem prob­lems and dam­aged DNA. Sci­en­tists found skin lesions on tile­fish, South­ern Hake, red snap­per and oth­er fish in the area near the blowout for two years after the spill.

Coastal wet­lands, crit­i­cal habi­tat for numer­ous species as well as an impor­tant buffer against storms, were also damaged.

It’s believed that chem­i­cals from the spill and dis­per­sants have made their way from plank­ton up through the entire marine food chain.

8. The reg­u­la­to­ry fail­ure continues.

There was noth­ing that hap­pened with Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon that couldn’t have been fore­seen,” says Mark Davis, a senior research fel­low at Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty Law School and direc­tor of the Insti­tute on Water Resources Law and Policy.

And that makes the pol­i­cy and reg­u­la­to­ry fail­ures that enabled the dis­as­ter that much more painful.

In a 2012 study on the lessons learned from the dis­as­ter, Davis point­ed to a long his­to­ry in the Gulf of oil and gas devel­op­ment super­sed­ing risk assess­ment and plan­ning. That was com­pound­ed by a cozy rela­tion­ship between indus­try and its reg­u­la­tors in the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Service.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has a stake in the finan­cial suc­cess of oil and gas devel­op­ment,” says Davis, and that doesn’t pro­vide much incen­tive for strict regulation.

In the fall­out from the dis­as­ter, the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice was dis­band­ed and was replaced with the Bureau of Safe­ty and Envi­ron­men­tal Enforce­ment. But how much has real­ly changed?

A sto­ry in E&E News found that prob­lems still abound in the new agency and it’s frac­tious, demor­al­ized and rid­dled with staff dis­trust toward its leadership.

Davis said dis­solv­ing the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice was need­ed, but he’s not sure it’s achieved the need­ed improve­ments to regain pub­lic truth. The new agency is still too focused on not being a bur­den to explo­ration and pro­duc­tion to real­ly be a guardian of public/​worker safe­ty and envi­ron­men­tal health,” he says. And until we get our poli­cies and legal archi­tec­ture in line with the risks we’re run­ning, we’re going to be very vulnerable.”

9. Trump is mak­ing it worse.

Giv­en the track record of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion on envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy, it should come as no sur­prise that the lim­it­ed pro­vi­sions made to improve safe­ty and envi­ron­men­tal health after the spill are being undone.

Last year the Inte­ri­or Depart­ment changed its well-con­trol rules to appease requests from indus­try. The rule change reduces the fre­quen­cy of tests to key equip­ment such as blowout pre­ven­ters, which sit at the well­head at the ocean floor and are the last-ditch defense against mas­sive gush­ers,” explained Politi­co. It also allows drillers to use third-par­ty com­pa­nies instead of gov­ern­ment inspec­tors to check equip­ment and gives them more time between inspec­tions, among oth­er things.”

10. The Gulf of Mex­i­co isn’t the only place at risk.

The eco­log­i­cal and human health imper­a­tives for pre­vent­ing anoth­er Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon — or worse — are impor­tant for Gulf com­mu­ni­ties and beyond.

In the past few years, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has sig­naled that it wants to vast­ly expand off­shore drilling, includ­ing lift­ing drilling bans in parts of the Arc­tic and Atlantic oceans. It’s a propo­si­tion that would lead to more spills and more green­house gas emis­sions at a time when it’s crit­i­cal we reduce both.

His plan has been met with stiff oppo­si­tion so far. But as the 10th anniver­sary of the Gulf dis­as­ter reminds us, we’re still on course to repeat one of our worst mistakes.

The take­away here is that peo­ple learn, but insti­tu­tions react,” wrote Tulane’s Davis. The Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon blowout may have taught many impor­tant lessons, but as yet, most of them are still unlearned by those most responsible.”

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