Two years after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Ian Barnett investigates its consequences

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, located in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded after methane leaked from the well and caught fire. The tragic loss of 11 lives following the initial explosion was only the beginning of several months of bloodshed and mayhem. Harrowing pictures of distressed wildlife, drenched in crude oil and struggling for survival spread across the globe, like the oil slick itself.

Meanwhile, BP were floundering: their first few attempts at stopping the leak failed. They contemplated chucking anything they could find down the well, from golf balls to old tyres, in an attempt to stem the jet of precious, yet environmentally damaging crude. Eventually, the flow was stopped by placing a containment cap over the wellhead – after almost five million barrels of oil escaped over 85 days. Barack Obama branded it as, “the worst environmental disaster the nation has ever faced”. He was probably right.

To reduce the ecological impact of the spilled oil, containment booms were placed around environmentally sensitive areas, including seabird colonies on islands in the Gulf of Mexico, marshes, mangroves and the Mississippi river delta. Chemical dispersants were fired into the underwater oil plume, in an attempt to break up the oil before it reached the surface. This tactic seemed to work, but it is thought that the method caused an oily layer to form on areas of the seabed near the well. The toxicity of the dispersants used has also been questioned – at least one of the chemicals used is carcinogenic. These efforts seem to have worked; some scientist say the environmental impact hasn’t been as bad as it could have been. Nevertheless, hundreds of turtles , dolphins and birds, amongst other creatures, have washed up dead after the accident. When taking into consideration the death and destruction caused by the incident, mentioning the economic consequences seems superficial: but these were just as severe.

BP’s share price fell by more than half in the weeks following the accident, and has never fully recovered; as a result, billions were lost by investors. BP spent over $7.5 billion on the clean-up operation alone. As the second anniversary of the explosion looms, the US Supreme court has announced that BP are to pay $7.8 billion in damages to the local communities surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. This figure is to be wholly employed to recompense those whose livelihoods were adversely affected by the oil spill: mainly in the tourism and fishing industries.

Although the loss of both human and marine life was certainly immeasurable, the volume of oil involved, and the contamination it caused, is almost negligible compared to the oil usage of such a super-polluting nation as the US. The 4.9 million barrels of oil that escaped into the environment would only have fuelled the US for a matter of hours – this appalling disaster suddenly seems rather insignificant in comparison.

One benefit of this catastrophe was the provision of a wake-up call for the oil exploration industry. Greenland has led the way: it now demands a $2 billion deposit from any company drilling in its waters, to cover the huge cost of cleaning up the environment after any eventual disaster. Of course, this figure is insignificant to multinational petrochemical companies who profit from the world’s burgeoning and inexorable dependence on crude; it now seems we are willing to pay almost any price for oil.

 

Ian Barnett

 

Image by the US Coast Guard