Chip Kline was walking to a morning legislative meeting in Louisiana’s Capitol building in Baton Rouge on April 21, 2010, when a news alert flashed on his Blackberry: An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico was in flames after a deadly overnight explosion.
Kline, at the time an environmental aide to then-Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, recognized it meant bad news for the state’s fragile coastline; the state, rich in fossil fuel reserves, is no stranger to oil and gas emergencies. Not long after getting the alert on his cell phone, Kline was en route to the Gulf to check things out.
“We knew we were in a very serious situation,” Kline says.
That was soon confirmed: 11 men aboard the rig were dead, including one of Kline’s college classmates; the rig, Deepwater Horizon, was still engulfed in a firestorm and sinking; an oil slick on the ocean surface, caused by a ruptured pipe a mile down on the seafloor, was slowly growing.
In this satellite image, an oil slick from the sunken Deepwater Horizon drilling platform is seen off the coast of Louisiana. The well was leaking an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf.(NASA/Getty Images)
The situation escalated from emergency to crisis, Kline says, when engineers for BP, the rig’s top operator, repeatedly failed to cap the gusher days after the explosion. It elevated from crisis to catastrophe, he says, when a live video feed from an undersea camera showed oil billowing from the broken pipe at 1,000 barrels per minute.
“That was when I had the ‘Holy sh-t – this is really serious’ moment,” says Kline, now chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Board and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive assistant for coastal activities.
“I don’t think any of us was prepared for the damage that was about to occur,” he says.
What unfolded over the next three months resulted in what ecologists, scientists and historians have called the worst marine environmental disaster in U.S. history, and arguably one of the worst ever to occur globally. By the time the underwater well was capped 87 days later, it had spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, creating an oil slick roughly the size of Georgia.
Back then, scientists predicted recovery would be a Herculean task, if it could be accomplished at all.
A decade after the disaster unfolded, however, marine scientists and experts who study the region say the Gulf has recovered – mostly – and in some ways has improved, particularly in Louisiana, the state most affected by the oil.
That’s because energy giant BP and other companies that operated the rig have paid into a record $20.8 billion fund to finance the cleanup as well as pay for a series of ambitious environmental projects that could protect Louisiana from catastrophic hurricane damage. Biologists say the resiliency of Mother Nature helped, too, providing abundant amounts of naturally occuring ocean microbes that feast on petroleum.
But a dark cloud still lingers around that silver lining.
While some sections of the 1,300-mile Gulf shoreline, including beach grasses and wildlife habitats, have rebounded, others haven’t.
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration researchers think oil, and the chemicals used to clean it up, may have altered the reproductive and organ biology of some fish. Scientists are still studying how some of the oil, which sank to the ocean floor, continues to affect deep-sea habitats. Other experts wonder if the Gulf is due for a fisheries collapse similar to one that happened in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989 – the second-worst marine ecological disaster in U.S. history.
“We’ve come a long way,” Kline says. “I think we still have a long way to go.”
And while the oil industry insists it learned valuable safety and disaster-response lessons from the Deepwater Horizon explosion – and created an industry consortium to share best practices and encourage ecologically responsible drilling – environmentalists believe another offshore-drilling disaster is only a matter of time.
“Offshore drilling is still as dirty and dangerous as it was 10 years ago,” Diane Hoskins, campaign director of the environmental nonprofit Oceana, said in a statement earlier this week, marking the anniversary. “If anything, another disaster is more likely today as the oil industry drills deeper and farther offshore.”
There is little doubt that the Deepwater Horizon was a disaster on an epic scale, a regional emergency that quickly became a historic national crisis. As BP struggled to contain the oil geyser – which, occurring in the deep sea a mile down, was an unprecedented engineering problem with no clear solution – the disaster quickly engulfed the year-old administration of President Barack Obama.
Oil Spills Through Time and Tide
The ecological toll was staggering: Tens of thousands of seabirds, fish and turtles dead, a dolphin population in one section of Louisiana habitat decimated by half, and several hundred miles of coastline coated with oily brown sludge. The economic cost was equally catastrophic: Five states whose coasts touch the Gulf lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the suddenly dry-docked tourism and seafood industry.
Lawmakers, environmentalists and Gulf Coast politicians pressured Obama to find a solution, and fast.
A “Well Integrity Team” team of top government scientists and oil engineers, assembled by the White House, BP and other industry representatives, found a solution and capped the well in July. But the Herculean task of cleanup for those along the Gulf – and the recriminations for the oil industry as well as the federal government – had just begun.
Within days of the explosion, legions of cleanup crews, including prison inmates as well as environmental activists and volunteers, descended on the Gulf armed with special towels and oil-skimming booms. They sopped oil from plants and gently scrubbed it from waterfowl. They scooped up oil from 1,300 miles of shoreline stretching from Texas to Florida. They sprayed chemical dispersants on the ocean to break up the oil slick.
Still, experts estimate much of the oil remains unaccounted for, and likely is lingering in the Gulf ecosystem.
Subsequent investigations found that BP’s zeal to tap what it dubbed the Macondo Prospect – named after a cursed fictional town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” – led it to ignore warnings and violate safety rules. But it also found that lax government oversight, including cozy relationships between the oil industry and federal regulators – enabled BP to cut corners, endanger lives and ruin the environment.
A series of civil judgments, fines and settlements over several years resulted in BP, industrial contractor Halliburton and other companies paying tens of billions of dollars to claimants, including fishermen and Gulf business owners who lost money due to the spill. The operators also paid into the $20 billion cleanup fund – a harsh but useful lesson, according to industry representatives.
“We think that the Macondo incident really launched a new day,” says Debra Phillips, an executive with the American Petroleum Institute, an industry policy group.
A man surf fishes as the sun rises, days after BP announced it is ending its active cleanup on the Louisiana coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, on April 19, 2014, in Grand Isle, La.(Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
A wide-ranging, post-crisis review led to new (albeit voluntary) safety standards as well as protocols on responding to a major crisis on an offshore oil rig, says Phillips, executive vice president of a division responsible for certification, standards and safety for drilling and refinery operations. It also gave birth, she says, to the Center for Offshore Safety – an industry-sponsored clearinghouse that advises companies how to safely conduct drilling operations off the U.S. continental shelf – and inspired creation of highly trained, for-hire teams that answer the call of an oil disaster on an ocean rig or platform.
On that hot, humid night in April, “multiple failures lined up to create a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Phillips says. “It’s hard to predict what the next incident will be or what it will look like. Whatever it might look like, we think we are better prepared” than in 2010, she says.
Ten years after the spill, Robert A. Thomas, director of the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University in New Orleans, gives the Gulf recovery “a B-plus.” That’s mostly because scientists feared the worst and worried the area might never recover.
“I go to the marshes all the time. They’re green and pretty and productive,” Thomas says. “But you can see some scars” if you look closely, including missing shore grasses and damaged estuaries.
His above-average grade for the Gulf, he says, comes mostly from the massive cleanup as well as repairs funded by the oil company settlements. Areas under threat from climate change and coastal erosion are improving, some fisheries have returned and Gulf residents have resumed making a living from a “working coast,” harvesting seafood and hosting tourists.
Unlike Phillips, however, Thomas believes the next major oil disaster in the Gulf is a matter of when, not if – due in part, he says, to the oil industry’s false sense of security. He recalls that shell-shocked engineers promised “never again” when the Ixtoc I rig exploded off the Mexican coast in 1979, a catastrophe that dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. The crisis took months to resolve.
Now, Thomas says, the same engineers who worked on the Deepwater Horizon are saying the same thing as those who worked on Ixtoc – echoing a familiar formula.
“The longer it goes between an accident, the higher the probability they won’t be ready for the next one,” he says. “Complacency sets in.”
Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience with the Environmental Defense Fund, agrees the cleanup has had a mixed record at best.
While waterfowl, fish and other forms of wildlife have returned to some restored habitats, he says, no one knows what’s happening in the deeper, colder waters of the Gulf – the most difficult place for scientists to examine, and likely the last resting place for much of the oil.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know; some subsurface data is harder to get at,” Cochran says. Because species not easily studied at that depth are still vital to the marine food web, he says, “we have to watch (Gulf wildlife) over the long term to see what happens over multiple generations.”
In many ways, the Deepwater Horizon disaster “was positive for the wrong reasons,” Cochran says, pointing out that the funds helping to improve the Gulf “directly resulted from the incident that killed 11 people,” killed massive amounts of wildlife and permanently scarred the environment.
“That’s not the way you do public policy,” he says.
Moreover, “the other aspect of (the disaster) is that we live in a very dynamic environment,” Cochran says. That includes loss of coastal land from sea level rise, rising river levels from floods and increased hurricanes due to warming waters in the Gulf – a trio of potentially deadly issues related to climate change.
“On balance, we’re moving in the right direction,” Cochran says. “But you don’t have the luxury of one bad thing happening and everything else stays the same.”
Kline, the governor’s executive assistant, agrees the Gulf is a dynamic environment still facing challenges, and environmentalists’ pessimism about oil drilling is understandable. Still, he says, Louisiana and the Gulf provides or processes most of the petroleum energy the nation consumes, so offshore drilling likely isn’t going anywhere.
“One of the things is we have to strike the right balance,” Kline says. “We need to ensure that the impacts to our coast and our shoreline are mitigated” but also continue “to sustain and house the infrastructure that allows 18% of the nation’s oil and gas.”