Unprepared for Disaster: How BP Tried to Stop Spewing Oil with Junk | Oceana USA
Oona Watkins/ Oceana

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploratory rig exploded, setting off the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The cause? A high-pressure surge of gas from the exploratory well caused the drill pipe to buckle. Then, the critical device meant to seal off the pipe in case of such a surge — the blowout preventer — failed. Throughout the 87 days that followed, BP struggled to stop the flow of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Over the next few months, we will revisit the events from 10 years ago and highlight the repercussions of this disaster with a series of blog posts. Join us as we dive deeper into many of the incidents discussed in Oceana’s report, Hindsight 2020: Lessons We Cannot Ignore from the BP Disaster.

May 26, 2010

10 years ago today, BP tried unsuccessfully to kill their well with the “junk shot.” This is a move aimed at slowing the free flow of oil from the wellhead. Just like it sounds, the purpose of a junk shot is to quite literally fill the well with so much junk that oil can’t move past it. Specifically, odds and ends like golf balls, plastic cubes, pieces of tire rubber and knotted rope get pumped into the blowout preventer (the device that failed to prevent the Deepwater Horizon disaster). The goal was to clog the well enough to stop the flow of oil – or at least slow it down enough that BP could try other methods of containment.

While it may sound outlandish, pumping debris via the “junk shot” is considered standard industry procedure for slowing oil flow from a blowout – yet the technique had never been done in deep water. From May 26–28, BP made three separate attempts with numerous shots of junk to block the well.

Each time, this approach failed.

The “junk shot” containment method is demonstrated here by Al Jazeera:

The unsuccessful “junk shot” was just one example of BP’s slow, inadequate and incomplete response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The company struggled to deploy techniques never tried in deep water and repeatedly failed, while oil gushed into the ocean for 87 days. Ultimately, more than 200 million gallons of oil spewed into Gulf waters. The toxic oil soaked 1,300 miles of shoreline from Florida to Texas – killing tens of thousands of birds, sea turtles, dolphins and fish along the way.

A decade later, offshore drilling remains as dirty and dangerous as it was when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Poor safety culture, lack of transparency and inadequate government oversight laid the groundwork for this disaster to occur and contributed to ineffective response efforts like the failed junk shots. Today, these conditions have not substantially improved and expanding offshore drilling to new areas only puts human health and the environment in harm’s way. 

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