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10 Things You Need to Know About the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Have you been missing parts of the story about the Gulf oil spill?

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The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico became front-page news as soon as the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded and caught fire on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and starting the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Yet, there are a number of things about the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that have been overlooked or underreported by the media—things you need to know.

1. No one can predict the extent of the oil spill damage

No one knows how bad things will become before they get better. Estimates of the volume of oil gushing from the damaged well are all over the place, ranging from BP's conservative 1,000 barrels a day in the early weeks to 100,000 barrels daily. Underwater plumes make even the highest estimates suspect. Coastal wetlands will be overwhelmed, more than 400 species of wildlife are likely to be devastated, and the dead zone in the Gulf could become much larger. Damage to tourism, multiple fisheries, and other industries could reach billions of dollars annually and last for many years. Hurricanes and tropical storms could extend the damage and drive oil deeper into coastal marshes, and ocean currents could carry it to the Atlantic coast.

2. Oil rig owner made money from the oil spill

BP leased the Deepwater Horizon oil rig from Switzerland-based Transocean, Ltd, the world's largest offshore drilling contractor. But while BP set up a $20 billion relief fund for victims of the Gulf oil spill, could face even stiffer penalties, and quickly has become a symbol of corporate irresponsibility, Transocean has largely avoided negative publicity and financial obligations related to the spill. In fact, the oil spill has been a financial boon for Transocean. During a conference call with analysts in May 2010, Transocean reported making a $270 million profit from insurance payouts after the oil spill.

3. BP's oil spill response plan is a joke

The oil spill response plan that BP submitted for all of its offshore operations in the Gulf of Mexico would be laughable if it hadn't led to an environmental and economic disaster. The plan talks about protecting walruses, sea otters, seals and other Arctic wildlife that don't live in the Gulf, but contains no information about currents, prevailing winds, or other oceanographic or meteorological conditions. The plan also lists a Japanese home shopping website as a primary equipment provider. Yet BP claimed its plan would enable the company to handle an oil spill of 250,000 barrels a day—far larger than the one it so clearly couldn't handle after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

4. Other oil spill response plans are no better than the BP plan

In June 2010, executives from all major oil companies that drill offshore in U.S. waters testified before Congress that they could be trusted to drill safely in deep water. The executives said they consistently follow safe drilling procedures that BP had ignored, and claimed to have containment plans that could handle much bigger oil spills than the Deepwater Horizon spill. But it turns out the containment plans of Exxon, Mobil, Chevron and Shell are nearly identical to BP's plan, citing the same exaggerated response capabilities, the same protections for walruses and other non-Gulf wildlife, the same ineffective equipment, and the same long-dead expert. Looks like these guys have been sharing their homework.

5. Cleanup prospects are bleak

Stopping the oil leaking from the damaged undersea well is one thing; actually cleaning up the oil spill is another. BP has tried every trick it can think of to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf, from containment domes to junk shots to the top kill method of injecting drilling fluid into the well. Nothing has worked, and its strategy of siphoning some of the oil to ships on the surface is a stopgap measure at best. But even if BP finally finds a way to stop the leak, most experts estimate that the most optimistic cleanup scenario is that no more than 20 percent of the oil will be recovered. As a point of reference, after the Exxon Valdez spill workers recovered only 8 percent. No matter what BP does now, millions of gallons of oil will continue to pollute the Gulf coast for years to come.

6. BP has a lousy safety record

In 2005, the BP refinery in Texas City exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. The following year, a BP pipeline in Alaska leaked 200,000 gallons of oil. According to Public Citizen, BP has paid $550 million in fines over the years (pocket change for a company that earns $93 million a day), including the two largest fines in OSHA history. BP didn't learn much from those experiences. On the Deepwater Horizon rig, BP decided not to install an acoustic trigger that could have shut down the well even if it was badly damaged. Acoustic triggers are required in most developed countries, but the United States only recommends them, leaving the choice to oil companies. The triggers cost $500,000, an amount BP earns in about eight minutes.

7. BP consistently puts profits before people

Internal documents that show time and again BP knowingly puts its employees at risk by choosing inferior materials or cutting corners on safety procedures—all in an effort to lower costs and increase profits. For a company that is valued at $152.6 billion, that seems a little cold-blooded. A BP Risk Management memo about the Texas City oil refinery, for example, showed that although steel trailers would be safer for workers in case of an explosion, the company opted for cheaper models that were not built to withstand a blast. At a refinery explosion in 2005, all 15 fatalities and many of the injuries occurred in or near the cheaper trailers. BP claims the company culture has changed since then, but most evidence points the other way.

8. Government moratoriums won't reduce the risk of oil spills

In the three weeks after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded on April 20, the federal government approved 27 new offshore drilling projects. Twenty-six of those projects were approved with environmental waivers like the one used to green-light BP's deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster. Two were for new BP projects. Obama imposed a 6-month moratorium on new offshore projects and an end to environmental exemptions, but within two weeks Interior had granted at least seven new permits, five with environmental waivers. As soon as the moratorium is lifted, BP and Shell are both poised to start drilling projects in the Arctic Ocean, an environment at least as fragile and considerably more hostile than the Gulf of Mexico.

9. Deepwater Horizon is not the first oil disaster in the Gulf

In June 1979, an offshore oil well operated by Pemex, a state-owned Mexican oil company, had a blowout and caught fire off the coast of Ciudad del Carmen in Mexico in much shallower water than the well the Deepwater Horizon was drilling. That accident started the Ixtoc 1 oil spill, which would become one of the worst oil spills in history. The drilling rig collapsed, and for the next nine months the damaged well sent 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil per day into the Bay of Campeche. Workers finally succeeded in capping the well and stopping the leak on March 23, 1980. Ironically, perhaps, the offshore oil rig in the Ixtoc1 spill was owned by Transocean, Ltd, the same company that owns the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

10. The Gulf oil spill is not the worst U.S. environmental disaster

Many journalists and politicians have referred to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, but it isn't. At least not yet. Scientists and historians generally agree that the Dust Bowl, created by the drought, erosion and dust storm that swept across the Southern Plains in the 1930s—was the worst and most prolonged environmental disaster in American history. For now, the Deepwater Horizon spill will have to settle for being the worst man-made environment disaster in U.S. history. But that could change if the oil continues to flow.

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