On this day in 2010, an oil rig run by British Petroleum (BP) exploded in the Gulf of Mexico 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, resulting in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The fire and explosions on the platform – perhaps caused by escaping methane gas – killed 11 workers and injured 17. The rig eventually sank, and the damage to the drilling equipment resulted in an unrelenting flow of oil from the well directly into the gulf. Attempts to staunch the flow were unsuccessful because of the difficulty in working at a depth of approximately one mile below sea level. At the height of the disaster, the well was pouring as much as 60,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. The damage to marine wildlife and the surrounding coastal areas is immeasurable.
Oil on beaches was relatively visible and removable. But the Louisiana coastline is characterized by wetlands, marshes and waterways very difficult to reach. These areas are breeding grounds and home to the many varieties of seafood that comprise Louisiana Cajun cuisine. In subsequent months, the oil had reached other Gulf Coast states, polluting over 1,000 miles of shoreline.
The spill damaged the fishing and tourism industries, leaving over 10,000 people unemployed. This incident took place shortly after the one-year mark of Barack Obama’s presidency, and was quickly seen as a test of his administration, especially by contrast to the George W. Bush response to Hurricane Katrina. Obama got a $20 billion compensation fund from BP to help the locals recover.
An investigation after the spill revealed the role of Halliburton – Dick Cheney’s oil company – in the malfunction. It also showed BP and Transocean employees on the rig overlooking early warnings of an impending eruption. Engineers were found to have deleted thousands of incriminating emails they had been ordered to save.
In the trial against BP and its partners, substantial fines were levied, and BP’s value as a company declined markedly. A spill of this proportion served as a powerful ecological wake-up call. More and more, hard questions are being asked about offshore drilling, and whether it should be permitted at all, much less in sensitive areas subject to longterm or permanent destruction. As the U.S. becomes more energy independent, environmental activists and ordinary citizens are asking, “At what price?”
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/AP