A roller coaster ride of confusion and turmoil followed the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and spill, which lasted an unimaginable 87-days. Finally, on July 15, 2010, the spewing well 5,000 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico was capped at last.
Months earlier in April, BP initially believed the well’s blowout preventer mechanism meant to stop such a catastrophe had done its job: stopping the flow of oil gushing from a broken wellhead. But three days after the blowout, underwater cameras showed oil still spewing into the ocean. The response that followed was sluggish, inadequate and incomplete.
BP made attempt after attempt to slow or stop the unfolding disaster, but each time, oil continued to seep into the ocean. The company tried deploying techniques that had never been used or proven effective in deep water – including covering the wellhead with a dome to contain the oil and using junk to try to seal the leak. Amid these failures, the government increased oversight of the oil response and control efforts. Scientists questioned BP’s plans and forced the company to evaluate worst case scenarios. According to a senior government official, before this increased supervision, BP “hoped for the best, planned for the best, expected the best.”
By early July, President Obama approved another plan in BP’s series of spill control mechanisms: the use of a capping stack. The capping stack – essentially a smaller version of the blowout preventer and similarly designed to stop the flow of oil – would enable BP to shut the well, if successfully deployed. Remotely operated vehicles installed the capping stack by July 12. BP closed off the well on July 15, and for the first time in 87 days no oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. It would take two more months before BP completed a relief well to divert oil to the surface, which it had begun drilling in early May, and permanently sealed the spewing reservoir.
Over the course of months following the blowout, it became painfully clear that BP had made no meaningful plans to deal with a potential spill. Drilling a relief well was the sole source-control option to stop oil flowing from a blowout that BP even mentioned by name in its pre-drilling response plan. But this process takes months to complete. Therefore, a three-month-long oil spill was a risk considered acceptable and agreed upon in exchange for the ability to extract oil deep offshore. The company never bothered to develop response plans specific to this drilling site or at least to submit ones written for the Gulf, and the government never forced them to do so. Instead the government accepted lacking, inaccurate and out-of-date response plans.
BP’s devastatingly insufficient disaster planning – considering the dire consequences for humans and the environment – underscores the industry’s lacking safety culture. Communities facing the dangers of offshore drilling should remember this when the industry claims that drilling is safer than ever. Today, offshore drilling is no safer than it was a decade ago and coastal communities deserve protection from another Deepwater Horizon-like disaster.
This is the fifth piece in an Oceana series looking back at the repercussions of 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and highlighting notable moments in the 87 days that followed, as millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. To learn more about the BP disaster, explore Oceana’s report, Hindsight 2020: Lessons We Cannot Ignore from the BP Disaster.
Explore other key moments in the series: Read about current efforts to stop the expansion of offshore drilling, BP’s failed attempts to stop gushing oil with junk, what happened when oil reached Florida’s beaches and how whales and dolphins of the Gulf are still recovering.