Explore Stories From Oceana's Report Hindsight 2020: Lessons We Cannot Ignore from the BP Disaster

On April 20, 2010, the BP exploratory rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 workers and setting off the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Oil gushed from the seafloor for 87 days, ultimately spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Chaos and uncertainty ensued. Residents across the Gulf watched helplessly as oil creeped toward their shores, while the government, BP and its contractors scrambled unsuccessfully to contain the spill for months.

It was one of the worst environmental disasters this country has ever seen. Oil washed up on 1,300 miles of shoreline, from Texas to Florida, oiling beaches and wetlands — and killing tens of thousands of birds, sea turtles, dolphins and fish. Despite the vast resources spent on oil removal attempts, the government estimated that as much as 60 million gallons of oil remained in the environment.

“It was an entire Gulf of Mexico-wide event. ... Nobody was ready for this scale of pollution. ... As far as we know, the actual impact of the spill is not over yet.” - Tracey Sutton, Nova Southeastern University
Photo Credit: Oona Watkins/ Oceana
“The BP oil spill was probably one of the single most horrific events of my career. ... It’s a very painful process to say we no longer have tourists here and therefore we have to lay you off because we simply don’t have the money to pay you.” - Julian MacQueen, Innisfree Hotels

The economic impacts began almost immediately. Tourism to the Gulf Coast declined and coastal businesses lost revenue and were forced to lay off workers. The prospect of oiled beaches depressed real estate values. Fisheries closed and demand for Gulf seafood plummeted. A government study estimated the loss in the seafood industry at nearly $1 billion, and the recreation industry, as a whole, lost more than a half-billion dollars.

Photo Credits: Jeff Hutchens/ Getty Images (top), Kari Goodnough/ Getty Images (bottom)

Oil spill impacts last for decades, long after oil removal attempts are abandoned. Years later, large swaths of the ocean floor around the site of the well resemble a toxic waste dump, devoid of the kinds of marine life that typically live there. Some fish, shrimp and squid populations declined by as much as 50% to 85%. Important marshes that protect the coast from storm surges and erosion were lost, and many of them may never recover.

At least one new study revealed that hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersants released underwater were less effective than previously thought. The high pressure at the depth of the well caused the oil and gas mixture that was released in the blowout to disperse on its own, and researchers concluded that the already dispersed oil could not be dispersed any further. So, this study suggests that those chemicals may have been dumped into the Gulf for no benefit at all.

Photo Credits: Breck P. Kent/ Shutterstock (top), NOAA (bottom left), Julie Dermansky (bottom right)

Oil is toxic on its own and dispersants are also hazardous. More than 100,000 people were involved in the BP Deepwater Horizon response and many were exposed to crude oil or chemical dispersants. Workers reported a range of health problems, including tightness of the chest and burning in the nose, eyes and lungs that in some cases continued for years after exposure. Workers showed persistent or worsening health problems even seven years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, including blood disorders and heart problems.

Photo Credit: Department of Energy

Danger exists at each phase. Some workers — and residents of coastal communities — exposed to waste materials may not have been aware of the dangers oil production poses. Many waste materials from oil exploration and production are exempt from the federal safeguards meant to protect people and the environment from exposure. This exemption is the apparent result the of oil and gas industry’s lobbying. For example, benzene is considered a human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But, if benzene waste is generated in the production or exploration of oil, it is treated as nonhazardous, even though it is known to cause cancer.

“They failed our people. ... At one point, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this could kill off the whole generation of Native Americans living off the coast of Louisiana.’” - Clarice Friloux, former outreach coordinator, United Houma Nation

Overall, BP’s response to the disaster was slow, inadequate and incomplete. Before it could begin drilling, BP submitted a spill-response plan. A review of this plan should have revealed that in no way was BP prepared to manage a blowout. BP’s response plan contained embarrassing mistakes, including a reference to seals and walruses — animals not found in the Gulf of Mexico, indicating that at least portions of the plan had been copied and pasted from documents related to drilling in the Arctic. The only plan to stop an oil spill at its source was an additional dangerous drilling process that takes months to complete, acknowledging in advance that an actual spill could take months to contain

Photo Credits: Chris Graythen/ Getty Images (top), U.S. Navy (bottom)

The dangers of offshore oil drilling are not limited to huge disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizon. The infrastructure footprint of the oil and gas industry in the Gulf is massive. As of 2016, there were 2,165 offshore platforms and more than 26,000 miles of pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico — more than enough to circle the Earth.

“I just have no faith that our government is going to require the oil industry to do all they can to not let this happen again.” - Cyn Sarthou, Healthy Gulf

The environmental, economic and health impacts from the oil and gas industry now threaten many more coastal communities. President Trump’s proposal would radically expand offshore drilling to nearly all U.S. waters.

Expanding offshore drilling threatens human health, ecosystems and economies. Fishing, tourism and recreation support more than 2.6 million jobs and generate nearly $180 billion in GDP in U.S. East and West Coast states.

“Once the oil industry gets anchored in an area, then there's no going back. So, why even start?” - Cyn Sarthou, Healthy Gulf
Photo Credit: Oleg Kovtun Hydroblo/Shutterstock

“I think about it, especially when I see people thinking that it's not going to happen again. ... It will. It's going to happen again.”

- Clarice Friloux, former outreach coordinator, United Houma Nation

Photo Credit: Patrick Mustain/ Oceana

This is only the beginning of the story. Oceana reviewed government documents, media coverage, scientific studies, reports from nonprofit organizations and interviewed Gulf Coast residents, scientists, business owners and policy experts. The findings are compiled in depth, in our full report:

Take Action

Today, we remain at risk of repeating history. President Trump has not slowed work on his radical plan to expand offshore drilling. We cannot let that happen. We must urge Congress to take action.

Add your name now to fight for protections against dangerous offshore drilling and spilling at oceana.org/ActNow.