On April 20th of this year, at approximately 10 PM in the Gulf of Mexico, an event happened which will affect not only us, but also our children’s children (Coast Guard). It was at this time that the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling platform operating in the Gulf of Mexico, suffered a large explosion which led to a massive oil spill. New estimates show that this oil spill may be the worst in U.S. history (Scott). One may ask what could have caused this accident to happen. Surely, we would like to believe that there are safeguards in place to ensure that this sort of thing is prevented. Unfortunately, there has been a culture of corruption in the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency which is supposed to ensure that drilling is performed safely, and a rush to profits by British Petroleum. One note regarding the measurements used in this paper: while most oil spill estimates are in barrels (1 barrel of oil = 42 gallons) or metric tonnes, I converted all measurements to gallons for consistency and ease of understanding.


The first spill that comes to mind for many Americans is the Exxon Valdez spill, which is regarded as one of the worst environmental disasters in history. However, it is not regarded as a disaster for the sheer volume of oil spilled. Rather, the reason that this spill was so damaging was “The timing of the spill, the remote and spectacular location, the thousands of miles of rugged and wild shoreline, and the abundance of wildlife in the region” (EVOSTC). While the Exxon Valdez tanker contained 53 million gallons of oil, luckily only 11 million gallons was spilled. The top three spills of all time, from smallest to largest, are the Nowruz spill in 1983, the Atlantic Empress spill in 1979, and the Ixtoc I spill in 1979 (Egawhary). The Nowruz oil spill was a series of incidents that occurred in the Persian Gulf. On February 10, 1983, a collision caused a tanker to list, resulting in damage to the pipe from the well to the tanker that was not capped until September of that year. In the same oil field, in March 1983, Iraqi helicopters attacked another platform, which resulted in a leak that was not capped until May 1985. These combined events resulted in 31 million gallons of oil being spilled, with much of that oil also burning (IncidentNews - Nowruz Oil Field). The Atlantic Empress spill was the result of a collision between two oil supertankers off the coast of Tobago on July 19, 1979. While fires on the other vessel were quickly extinguished and the oil on the ship recovered, the Atlantic Empress was not so lucky. In late July a large explosion made recovery of the vessel impossible, and a few days later it sank. This spill resulted in the release of approximately 79 million gallons of oil (ITOPF). The Ixtoc I oil spill, however, is the worst in history. This incident is particularly chilling because it is very similar to the Deepwater Horizon spill, and yet conditions in this scenario were much more ideal. On June 3, 1979, not long before the Atlantic Empress spill, the Ixtoc I drilling platform suffered a blowout and sank. The wreckage from the sunken platform surrounded the wellhead, complicating the matter of sealing it. The blowout preventer (commonly called the BOP) was eventually closed, however it had to be reopened to prevent the pressure in the well from destroying the BOP. The leak was not stopped until two relief wells were drilled and the BOP was shut on March 23, 1980 (IncidentNews - Ixtoc I). This spill caused 138 million gallons of oil to be spilled, although environmental damage was minimized by the shallow depth of the wellhead, the warm water in the area which accelerated microbial digestion of the oil, and an effective containment and burn of the oil (Marshall). To give a sense of the scale involved with the current spill, as of this writing, the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill is estimated to be anywhere from 22 million gallons to 193 million gallons (Winerman). Unfortunately, these spills account for only a small fraction of the number of spills that have ever occurred. The Office of Response and Restoration website has 148 entries for oil spills (IncidentNews - Search Results). Truly, the possibility of sheer ecological catastrophe as the result of an oil spill is very high. In the United States, we have attempted to mitigate the damage from these seemingly unavoidable spills through the creation of a regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service.

Need for regulation became apparent in the late 1800s as people began to drill small oil wells on beaches. The first act responsible for controlling offshore drilling was the U.S. Submerged Lands Act, which in 1953 claimed the area underwater within 3 miles from the shore as under the ownership of the United States. Later that year, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gave responsibility for the outer continental shelf, or the OCS, to the Secretary of the Interior. A major oil spill in 1969 prompted some important federal legislation. Among them was: the Clean Air Act, which set standards for air quality; the National Environmental Policy Act, which required an environmental assessment for key federal legislation; and the Coastal Zone Management Act, which gave states the power to review federal legislation that would affect their coasts. It wasn’t until 1982 that a new agency was created to oversee offshore drilling. In this year, congress passed the Federal Oil & Gas Royalty Management Act, which gave the Secretary of the Interior the power to create a federal agency to oversee the development of resources in the OCS (MMS). This new agency, the Minerals Management Service, was “responsible for the mineral leasing of submerged OCS lands and for the supervision of offshore operations after lease issuance.” (MMS) The MMS has a very important job in the oversight of these sensitive underwater resources. However, lax oversight and corruption have led to what President Obama, described as a “cozy relationship” between the MMS and drilling companies such as British Petroleum (Favole and King Jr.).

British Petroleum is the company who was leasing the Deepwater Horizon to tap a massive underwater oil reserve. BP is a one hundred year old company which started out with a lucrative oil deal in Persia, and now stands as one of the world’s leading oil companies (Annual Report on Form 20-F 2009). In 1901, William D’Arcy received the exclusive right to search for oil in Persia. After eight years of fruitless effort, D’Arcy and his team found oil. Within a year, D’Arcy founded the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. In 1914, Winston Churchill’s belief that the British Navy should switch from coal power to oil power led Britain to purchase controlling shares in Anglo-Persian. In 1917, Anglo-Persian bought British Petroleum, but they were still largely separate when Persia changed its name to Iran in 1935 and the parent company followed suit by changing its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. 1951 was a tumultuous year for the company, as a change in political power caused a new prime minister to be elected, who quickly nationalized Iran’s oil supply. With an embargo on Iranian oil, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was forced to shut down. After the United States and Britain covertly overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran (CNN), Anglo-Iranian returned, but now the company was re-branded as British Petroleum. 1969 brought a windfall to BP as they finally discovered oil in Alaska’s North Slope, where they had been searching for years. The next year, BP would partner with American oil provider Sohio to deliver Alaskan oil to gasoline-thirsty American drivers. Ten years later Iran nationalized their petroleum following another revolution (ICS), and BP finally severed its ties to the nation. Beginning in the eighties, a series of mergers and acquisitions made BP the multinational corporation they are today: the 1988 purchase of Britoil, the 1998 merger with Amoco to create BP Amoco, the 2000 purchase of ARCO and acquisition of Burmah-Castrol, the 2002 purchase of Veba Oel, and a merger in Russia with Alfa Group and Access Renova Group (Our History). This information is mostly the official history of BP; their actual track record, however, is far from spotless.

The Checkered Past of British Petroleum

For example, BP’s safety record has received scrutiny since the Deepwater Horizon incident, with a whopping 760 Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations in the last five years. To give a sense of the scale of their disregard for safety, Exxon had just one violation in that same period of time (Thomas, Jones and Cloherty). Also, a pair of congressmen learned that BP had not done much to improve their safety (Lustgarten) following an incident where over 267,000 gallons of oil were spilled in Alaska’s North Slope (Roach). In more recent times, BP has shown that they are not the safe company they portray themselves as. Greenpeace awarded them the Emerald Paintbrush award for their highly effective marketing campaign that described their company as “Beyond Petroleum” while putting 93% of their energy investments into oil and gas (C). One incident which particularly affected BP’s image in the eyes of the public and the government was an incident at the BP Texas City oil refinery. On March 23, 2005, according to the official Chemical Safety Board report, “a series of explosions occurred at the BP Texas City refinery during the restarting of a hydrocarbon isomerization unit. Fifteen workers were killed and 180 others were injured.” (CSB) Subsequent investigations found that, after this incident, BP did not do significant work to improve the safety of the plant, and they were fined $87 million (CCH). Of course, it has not helped that BP and other major oil companies have very close ties to the MMS, the agency which is supposed to keep them on the level.

What has happened to the MMS is the result of regulatory capture. Over time, federal agencies can be co-opted into the corporations they are supposed to be regulating. Unfortunately, this often results in corruption. MMS was lax in monthly inspections of the Deepwater Horizon platform, often missing them and offering varying accounts on the number of inspections performed in the last nine years (Pritchard). One particularly suspect action by MMS was to give BP a categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act, with MMS even stating that the largest likely spill from the Deepwater Horizon would not exceed 193,200 gallons (again, the current spill is estimated to be at least 22 million gallons (Winerman)). It is an endemic problem, as the spokesman for the Department of the Interior has stated that the MMS grants between 250 to 400 waivers for Gulf of Mexico projects every year (Eilperin). One final example of the relationship that MMS has with oil companies was revealed in an Interior Department inspector general report just released May 25 of this year. In the report, it was revealed that MMS officials accepted gifts from gas and oil companies, e-mailed pornography (which they viewed at work) and inappropriate jokes to one another, flew to football games in corporate planes with company officials, did drugs, and allowed companies to fill out MMS forms that were supposed to be completed by federal officials. As a result of the report, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has unveiled a plan to break MMS into three separate agencies, because he argues that energy development, enforcement, and revenue collection “are conflicting missions and must be separated.” What makes this worse is that this report “is a follow-up to a blockbuster IG report released in 2008 that detailed a sex, drugs and illegal gifts scandal at MMS” meaning that this is an ongoing problem (Straub). Now that we have reviewed the history of oil spills, the history of the MMS and BP, and the special relationship between the MMS and companies like BP, we will move on to the matter at hand, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that started April 20, 2010.

What Happened?

The Deepwater Horizon is a massive, 32 story semi-submersible drilling platform capable of drilling in water depths of 8,000 ft (Transocean). This particular drilling platform was famous for drilling the deepest oil well ever, at a depth of 35,050 feet (Reddall). The platform itself is owned by a company called Transocean, and leased by BP for use in drilling wells. Drilling platforms such as this do not get oil out of the ground; rather, their primary duty is to drill a hole into an oil reserve and then leave it so that a later platform can get the oil out. Such was the case here, as BP hoped to tap the oil reserve known as Macondo using the Deepwater Horizon, and then move in another vessel to remove the oil. The following information is the result of an investigation by the Wall Street Journal (Casselman and Gold). Drilling into Macondo proved to be a tricky task, as another vessel had already tried it and failed, only to be towed into port when struck by a hurricane. Drilling had originally started in October of 2009, and when Deepwater Horizon arrived at the well, BP hoped to have the well finished by mid-March 2010. A series of issues, such as gas seepage into the well and brittle rock, caused delays that cost BP as much as $1 million per day. When the well was finally drilled, Halliburton, contracted to provide cement to seal the well until it could be pumped, recommended 21 plugs to keep gas from escaping; BP used only six. Also, BP used a single pipe to access the oil, rather than one pipe inside a larger one to provide an extra layer of protection, as is common practice. BP also skipped vital tests, one to see if gas was seeping into the drilling mud at the bottom of the well, and another to test the cement which was vitally important to the safe sealing of the well. Shortly before the procedure to remove the Deepwater Horizon’s drilling mechanism from the well had begun, a BP official on the boat decided that seawater would be used rather than drilling mud to seal the well; this made the well much more susceptible to gas leaks. A pressure test on the seals of the well showed abnormal readings, but BP decided to proceed anyway. While removing mud from the well in preparation for placing the final cement plug, a procedure that is unusual but still permitted by MMS, “Witnesses say they saw mud shooting out of the derrick like water from a firehose.” The nail in the coffin for the 11 souls lost on board was the failure of the blowout preventer, intended to protect the rig from just such a circumstance, most likely due to a failure in the hydraulic line. BP had noted that the line was leaking, which can reduce the blowout preventer’s effectiveness, but they did not take any action to fix it (Urbina). The loss of the Deepwater Horizon, which sank two days later (‘Top Kill’ Planned to Stop Oil Leak), was the result of a series of poor decisions and lax regulations. Unfortunately, the spill could have been prevented entirely with a backup device called an acoustic trigger which allows the well to be shut remotely in the event that the blowout preventer fails; however, the MMS does not require the devices as a study found that most rigs have backup devices such as the unmanned submarines that have failed to stop the leak to this day. The acoustic trigger costs $500,000; presently, BP claims to be spending $6 million per day to combat the spill (Gold, Casselman and Chazan). BP has rebuked requests by the scientific community to help estimate the actual leak rate of the well; they claim that their focus should be on stopping the leak.

After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Coast Guard was rapidly aware of the potential hazard that a complete blowout could pose. Also, they knew that the blowout preventer had failed and could not be operated by unmanned submarines (Center for Public Integrity). On April 24 the Coast Guard publicly admitted that the well was leaking at least 42,000 gallons per day from three places. On May 5, BP successfully capped the smallest leak. On May 7, a containment dome was lowered onto the main leak; however, by the next day it was readily apparent that the formation of hydrate crystals on the dome, which made it more buoyant than the surrounding water, would prevent this method from working. On the 12th, BP announced that it would try with a smaller dome, but this was scrapped two days later for a siphoning tube to draw the oil up into a tanker; this attempt successfully captured some of the escaping oil but not all. The next plan was to use a “top kill” method that layered heavy drilling mud on the leak, simultaneous with the insertion of debris into the blowout preventer. This was announced as a failure on May 29 (Timeline: Oil spill in the Gulf). In the following days, BP managed to cut a section of pipe and install a dome on it that will, as earlier, siphon oil to a tanker. This goal this time is to form a semi-permanent seal. The dome was successfully connected, however as of this writing BP has not closed several vents which still leak oil. These vents must be closed slowly to prevent the pressure inside the blowout preventer from reaching a critical level. If this fails, the world will have to watch and wait as BP drills relief wells into the Maconda oil reserve. This is not expected to be completed until August. This is how BP has been handling the spill; how has BP been handling the political fallout?

Unfortunately for BP’s image, they do not seem to be handling the current spill in the best possible fashion. For example, the dispersant used by BP to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf, called Corexit, may actually make the spill more toxic (Goldenberg), and even though the EPA has told BP to find an alternative dispersant, they have refused to find a less toxic product (EPA). Their public relations could use some work as well, as BP has told citizens in the area affected by the spill that the oil was “red tide [algae], dishwashing-liquid runoff, or mud” and BP may even have an undue level of control over the law enforcement agencies in Louisiana (McClelland, “It’s BP’s Oil”). The company has informed some people that they are not to photograph dead or dying wildlife as a result of the spill (Lysiak and Kennedy). Also, there is some evidence that BP is not being particularly forthcoming with the information that they possess. For example, BP officials on the shore in Louisiana were aware that the ‘top kill’ procedure was a failure at the same time that the press was being informed that it seemed to be working (McClelland, My BP Mole Spills the Secrets of BP’s Cleanup Ops). Strangely, two “company men”, people working directly for BP on the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion, did not testify at the Congressional hearings on the spill. One plead the fifth amendment, and one excused himself for an unidentified illness (Bolstad). This has led many to suspect that BP is covering something up, or has not been telling the truth entirely. Even though BP is not handling the public relations end of things very well, we should look to the future to see what the effects of the spill will be.

There is mounting evidence that this leak will have far-reaching implications for a very long time. Initially, the size of the leak was estimated to be 42,000 gallons per day (Robertson), however later estimates have put the amount of oil leaking as high as 4,200,000 gallons per day (Winerman). NASA satellite imagery has shown that the spill is travelling southeast, potentially towards the Loop Current, which is capable of carrying the oil to Florida and even potentially the East Coast (Allen and Lindsey). The oil first began to make landfall in mid-may, and has already begun to clog wetlands and marshes along the coast, areas with vital and fragile ecosystems (Fahrenthold and Achenbach). The damage is not limited to wildlife, either; people employed by BP to clean up the spill are complaining of nausea, respiratory problems, and headaches. When similar symptoms arose in people cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill, the problems were attributed to a viral illness. To this day, some who participated in that cleanup suffer from severe respiratory problems (Schwartz and Brown). Recently, the health effects have been attributed to a variety of sources by both BP and the federal government. While it may seem obvious to some that the oil is having some effect on the atmosphere, including the “irredeemably foul” smell that the air has (MSNBC), BP CEO Tony Hayward has stated that the effects on people are the result of food poisoning, and the director of the worker education-training program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has stated that these effects are the result of cleaning products used on oily ship decks (Taylor). Now that we know the effects on the people and the environment, it would be helpful to know the effects on British Petroleum.

What is very shocking is the low level of outrage at BP; there have been some protests, such as affected citizens spelling out “Never Again” on the beach with their bodies (Bacher) but very few. One group, calling itself Seize BP, is pushing to get the government to seize BP’s assets to pay for the cleanup, but their actions are on a fairly limited scale (Fletcher and Milliken). While some customers have chosen not to fill up at BP gas stations, many are ambivalent about where they buy their gas from. Others may not even be aware that they are buying BP’s gas, as BP sells its gas to non-BP-branded stores and operates under the name ARCO is some parts of the country (Joyner). As far as their business is concerned, BP is facing a fairly minimal impact. Credit rating agencies Fitch Ratings, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor have all recently downgraded BP’s credit rating but only by a small amount (Young and Hoskins). And, even though publicly traded shares of BP have decreased in value from $59.48 per share the day before the explosion to $39.27 as of June 3rd (Google Finance), their stock has not plummeted so much as to be unattractive to investors. But while there has been some damage to BP’s reputation and business, this is most likely not the end of BP as we know it. The highest estimates of the cost of the spill to BP are around $37 billion, which is a staggering amount but well within BP’s ability to pay over a long period of time. While BP will likely face fines, and may even be temporarily excluded from doing business in the United States, it is most probable that BP will continue to operate long after this spill is cleaned up (Bergin).


Why has the Deepwater Horizon attracted so much attention in the United States? As the old adage goes, “location, location, location.” The sad truth is that oil spills are not uncommon, as we have seen. Even today, many other spills in areas such as Nigeria are largely ignored by the press, even though their size and environmental impact are comparable. In the Niger delta “two major independent investigations over the past four years suggest that as much is spilled at sea, in the swamps and on land every year as has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico so far”; nonetheless, people tend to ignore these spills (Vidal). This is largely because these spills are so remote. If as much attention were paid to these small, frequent spills in faraway places as have been paid to the spill in the Gulf, then perhaps regulation of the oil industry would be stronger. As we have seen, the strength and commitment of the MMS is low, even with the severe consequences of poor practices. The MMS was founded with the specific purpose of preventing oil companies like British Petroleum from running roughshod over the environment. BP, for its sake, has moved to invest somewhat in renewable energy, but their track record does not show a commitment to safety that we would like to see in a global company. The numerous factors which played into this disaster range from the underutilization of cement seals, the lack of concern for safety and the preference for speed and ease, and shortcuts such as avoiding a half million dollar safety device that could have saved 11 lives and the billions of dollars spent on the spill. The aftermath of the spill, from BP’s multiple failures at stopping the leak to BP’s failure to maintain a positive image in the public sphere, has taken a toll on the company; however, the company will likely continue to survive, and may or may not learn a lesson from this. The company certainly was not quick to mend its ways after the Texas City refinery disaster, as the $87 million fine shows, but one may hope that this time will be different.

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Straub, Noelle. “Interior Probe Finds Fraternizing, Porn and Drugs at MMS Office in La. .” 25 May 2010. The New York Times. 5 June 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/05/25/25greenwire-interior-probe-finds-fraternizing-porn-and-dru-45260.html.

Taylor, Marisa. “Contradicting BP, feds lay Gulf illnesses to cleaning fluid.” 3 June 2010. McClatchy. 5 June 2010 http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/06/03/95318/contradicting-bps-ceo-feds-say.html.

Thomas, Pierre, et al. “BP’s Dismal Safety Record.” 27 May 2010. ABC News. 2 June 2010 http://abcnews.go.com/WN/bps-dismal-safety-record/story?id=10763042&page=1.

Transocean. “Fleet Specifications: Deepwater Horizon.” 2010. Transocean. 30 May 2010 http://www.deepwater.com/fw/main/Deepwater-Horizon-56C17.html?LayoutID=17.

Urbina, Ian. “Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig.” 29 May 2010. The New York Times. 3 June 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/us/30rig.html.

Vidal, John. “Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it.” 30 May 2010. The Guardian. 5 June 2010 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell.

Winerman, Lea. “Extent of Oil Spill Remains Unclear.” 14 May 2010. PBS Newshour. 5 June 2010 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2010/05/despite-video-extent-of-oil-spill-remains-unclear.html.

Young, Sarah and Paul Hoskins. “BP credit ratings cut as oil-spill costs mount.” 3 June 2010. Reuters. 3 June 2010 http://www.reuters.com/article/marketsNews/idUSLDE6520S020100603.

(Header image credit U.S. Coast Guard.)

Creative Commons License The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This post was originally submitted for a class on the economics and public policy of natural resources.