by Chinmay Amin
I remember glancing at the TV as I walked by the living room. I saw adults sitting across a glass newsroom desk, eyebrows furrowed and conversing furiously with each other. I was only in third grade but I quickly sensed the magnitude and seriousness of the topic they discussed. The news panned to images and footage and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, horrified by what I was seeing. Tall columns of dark smoke rose into the air. Red lines stained a deep blue ocean. Turtles and birds flailed about, their bodies covered in mud-brown grease.
The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was one of the first environmental crises I can remember that was caused by human error. In 2010, The Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig, leased by BP, exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. For the next 87 days until the well was finally closed off, the rig spilled over 350,000 metric tons of oil into the Gulf, devastating surrounding ecosystems and marine life. It is estimated that the oil spill killed upwards of 167,000 sea turtles and between two to five million larval fish and adversely impacted over 1,200 square miles of sea floor in the Gulf . Thirteen years later, the Gulf still feels the impacts of the oil spill, as clean-up efforts are projected to continue past 2030.
The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill ranks among the most destructive human-caused environmental crises in American history. Over a decade removed from the event, it’s essential to ask– have we strengthened our ability to prevent oil spills?
In the years following the spill, Congress sought to address oil spill risk but was limited in its success as it only addressed short-term consequences of Deepwater Horizon and failed to address many of the core determinants of the crisis. Legislation primarily focused on funding processes for clean-up efforts and compensation and does not focus on how crises similar to Deepwater Horizon can be prevented in the future. For example, H.R. 5499, passed in 2010, adjusted provisions Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to dedicate further resources to address the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon. While H.R. 4899, also passed in 2010, dedicated further funding toward oil-spill-related programs. We see that both bills specifically targeted the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, rather than addressing the shortcomings of policy related to oil spills more generally.
Further, while oil spill-related policy measures received a high degree of attention in the immediate years following the oil spill, over time, Congress shifted its attention elsewhere. For example, the 111th Congress, for example, conducted over 60 hearings related to the BP oil spill and introduced over 150 pieces of legislation that provisions that sought to address oil spills. Successive Congresses, however, soon lost interest in the issue area. The 112th Congress, for example, only proposed 50 pieces of legislation that included provisions related to oil spills. By the 113th and 114th Congresses, most legislators lost interest in the issue area altogether.
While legislative solutions have largely fallen flat and Congressional interest in the issue area has waned, oil spills still present a significant threat to the environmental health of the United States. In January 2022, an oil spill in New Orleans, Louisiana leaked over 300,000 gallons of diesel into ponds and other habitats, killing thousands of fish (SOURCE 5). As oil spills continue to threaten ecosystems and wildlife, Congress must reignite its interest in the oil-spill-related policy and consider long-term solutions to addressing oil spills. Rather than simply dedicating funding towards addressing individual crises, Congress must take a broader approach and address the determinants of oil spills more generally.
 Fisheries, NOAA. “10 Years of NOAA’s Work after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Timeline.” NOAA, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/habitat-conservation/10-years-noaas-work-after-deepwater-horizon-oil-spill-timeline.
 “Deepwater Horizon’s Impact on Wildlife.” National Wildlife Federation, https://www.nwf.org/oilspill.
 “10 Years of NOAA’s Work after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Timeline.”
 Ramseur, Jonathan. Oil Spill Legislation in the 111th Congress. Congressional Research Service, 15 Oct. 2010, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R41453.pdf.
 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Recent Activities and Ongoing Developments. Congressional Research Service, 17 Apr. 2015, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R42942.
 “Massive Diesel Spill near New Orleans Kills 2,300 Fish and 32 Birds, Sickens Dozens of Alligators.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 14 Jan. 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/diesel-spill-near-new-orleans-kills-2300-fish-32-birds-sickens-alligators/.
8 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Deepwater Horizon–Have We Gotten Better at Managing Oil Spills?”
As the most serious offshore oil spill in U.S. history, the BP oil spill led to environmental, socio-economic, and health impacts among coastal areas, causing immediate as well as long-term psychological effects on residents. Although the government reported subsequent plan about recovering the affected areas, interviews in the early months about citizens’ mental health reported symptoms including suspiciousness and mistrust, the beginning of dissension in communities, uncertainty about the future, and even acute stress reactions with early symptoms of the generalized disorder (Osofsky et al, 2011). Many studies have also shown both observational and statistical evidence of people relying on the Gulf of Mexico for nutritional and environmental livelihood as they are worrying about post-accident restoration.
From the public’s online comments reported to NOAA , people are commonly anxious about consists of the uses of dispersants, protection of endangered animals, and also impacts on local economy such as fishery and tourism, which are also the issues the government is trying to tackle. Understanding these responses is crucial to the government for supporting programs resolving the injuries to specific resources and recommending approaches in environmental and socio-economic restoration to address the physical but also psychological impacts on citizens from the Oil Spill.
Osofsky, H., Osofsky, J., & Hansel, T. (2011). Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Mental Health Effects on Residents in Heavily Affected Areas. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 5(4), 280-286. doi:10.1001/dmp.2011.85
Chinmay, you present a very compelling argument for arguably one of the worst environmental disasters the United States and its neighbors have every faced. It’s frankly abysmal that our government has not taken broader measures to prevent future oil spills and enact clean-up and damage control frameworks should one occur, especially when an event like this impacts human and community health in irreparable ways.
Research heavily informs Congress’ approach to policymaking, and there is no shortage of research on the impacts of Deepwater Horizon on surrounding communities, ecosystems, and workers. Kwok et al. carried out the GuLF Study to investigate the relationships between clean-up worker exposure to oil and physical and mental health effects; with over 30,000 participants, these researchers managed to reach both local workers and people from across the country who came in just to help with clean-up efforts (2017). The researchers found that many of the participants have increased psychological stress and that many of these individuals come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, both characteristics that warrant further support from the government.
Kwok et al. also talk about the NIH Disaster Response Program, which may provide a framework policymakers can use for broader oil spill response (2019). This program provides data collection tools, research protocols, and training materials to advance research efforts following a disaster. Many of these pre-established research protocols have permitted investigators to gain access to populations and draw conclusions much quicker than in the past; for example, with Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston academic institutions used these frameworks to conduct rapid research that ultimately informed the public and those in power (Kwok et al., 2019).
Kwok, R. K., Engel, L. S., Miller, A. K., Blair, A., Curry, M. D., Jackson, W. B., Stewart, P. A., Stenzel, M. R., Birnbaum, L. S., Sandler, D. P., & GuLF STUDY Research Team (2017). The GuLF STUDY: A Prospective Study of Persons Involved in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response and Clean-Up. Environmental health perspectives, 125(4), 570–578. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP715
Kwok, R. K., Miller, A. K., Gam, K. B., Curry, M. D., Ramsey, S. K., Blair, A., Engel, L. S., & Sandler, D. P. (2019). Developing Large-Scale Research in Response to an Oil Spill Disaster: a Case Study. Current environmental health reports, 6(3), 174–187. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-019-00241-9
I completely agree, Chinmay. I took a class freshman year on Gulf Disasters, and we spent around one month learning about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I thought that we would learn about ways to prevent future oil spills, but we mainly focuses on the ways the United States government responded to the oil spill. We focused on all the ways that FEMA (federal emergency management agency), under the guidance of the EPA, diverted funds in order to clean up the disaster as best as they could. Still, Congress didn’t do much to address the underlying reasons that caused the oil spill. While the exact cause can be (slightly) debated, I think that it has to do with the lack of regulatory oversight and enforcement of oil-drilling safelt practices. In this New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/15/science/earth/15spill.html, they cite the cause of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig as “a failure of the cement at the base of the 18,000-foot-deep well that was supposed to contain oil and gas within the well bored. That led to a cascade of human and mechanical errors that allowed natural gas under tremendous pressure to shoot onto the drilling platform, causing an explosion and fire that killed 11 of the 126 crew members and caused an oil spill that took 87 days to get under control.” The article notes that while a federal task force concluded that BP was ultimately at fault, there were also numberous federal regulatory practices that BP had violated and still allowed to continue drilling. Had federal regulators been more stringent with correctly enforcing the regulations that had been put in place to protect our environment, then maybe the Deepwater Horizon oil spill might not have occured. Today, however, we’ll never know if it would have made a difference. All we can do it call on Congress to ensure that these federal regulations are actually being enforced. That is one way that we can prevent such a tragedy from occuring again.
Chinmay, I think this is an excellent blog topic that deserves more attention from Congress. Not only is preventing similar oil rig explosions from occurring an environmental issue, but it is also a human safety concern. Eleven workers were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and by not implementing policy to prevent further events like these from occurring, they will have died in vain. At the very least, if politicians don’t care about harming the environment, they should implement preventive policies to avoid having blood on their hands.
After the Deepwater Horizon incident faded from the 24-hour news cycle, it appears that Congress’s attention to the issue dwindled as well. On May 30th, 2010, Secretary Salazar announced a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, which to me feels like a long enough period of time for people to move on to the next eye-catching news headline. While there were several important regulations implemented after the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Trump administration effortlessly deregulated offshore drilling (https://eelp.law.harvard.edu/2020/05/deepwater-horizon-ten-years-later-reviewing-agency-and-regulatory-reforms/). I think in order to prevent future oil spills like Deepwater Horizon, policy needs to be implemented that can’t be overturned by future administrations due to greed and power. The impacts of this oil spill were devastating and are still felt by the environment today, and these vulnerable ecosystems cannot endure another destructive event like this.
It seems very strange to me that historically the image of an oil well in the American west spouting a profuse stream of oil through its top was celebrated as an achievement of American industry. Now any uncalled leakage of oil into the natural world is strongly frowned upon due to the numerous short term and long term effects on the environment. Looking at solutions that are currently in place, the Marine Spill Resource Commission (MSRC), is the largest oil spill response team in the USA and was created in the 1990s after the Exxon Valdez incident. Although the EPA also allows the use of many chemicals to act as dispersants to help remediate the spills, I feel that the most effective solution would be stronger regulations on the oil drilling process itself. Quotas on how much oil can be drilled per day and stricter safety inspections and regulations are necessary steps in my opinion to ensure a safer practice for these oil companies in our oceans. As new technologies in the oil & gas industry are developed over time, we can expect to see after drilling practices and hopefully less oil spills as time goes on. It isn’t until the US government enacts higher regulations on ocean drilling practices that we will see improvements in the oil spill problem because once the spill occurs, it is already too late.
For more information on the history of oil spill clean up methods: https://guides.loc.gov/oil-and-gas-industry/controversies/oil-spills
This was a super interesting topic. I had similar experiences growing up hearing about oil spills and after taking some environmental science classes it’s clear they’re very damaging to the environment. While there have been some improvements in technology and safety measures in the oil industry, such as required spill response plans and improved blowout preventers on drilling rigs, I believe that preventing oil spills requires more than just technological improvements. It requires changes in industry practices and regulations, as well as a shift towards renewable energy sources. Like you said in your article, there isn’t much done to address the prevention of future spills. After reading this, I wanted to know more about the role of others government agencies besides Congress such as the EPA and Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has an Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy but similarly to that of Congress, it seems quite lackluster in terms of prevention and instead focuses on cleanup after the spill has already occurred (https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Response-Policy-CG-5R/Office-of-Incident-Management-Preparedness-CG-5RI/Marine-Environmental-Response-CG-MER/). I think a major shift would have to occur in the Executive Branch of government in order to see some impactful change on how the government handles oil spills, especially as climate change continues to affect us.
This was a super interesting topic. I had similar experiences growing up hearing about oil spills and after taking some environmental science classes it’s clear they’re very damaging to the environment. While there have been some improvements in technology and safety measures in the oil industry, such as required spill response plans and improved blowout preventers on drilling rigs, I believe that preventing oil spills requires more than just technological improvements. It requires changes in industry practices and regulations, as well as a shift towards renewable energy sources. Like you said in your article, there isn’t much done to address the prevention of future spills. After reading this, I wanted to know more about the role of others government agencies besides Congress such as the EPA and Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has an Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy but similarly to that of Congress, it seems a little lackluster in terms of prevention and instead focuses on cleanup after the spill has already occurred (https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Response-Policy-CG-5R/Office-of-Incident-Management-Preparedness-CG-5RI/Marine-Environmental-Response-CG-MER/). I think a major shift would have to occur in the Executive Branch of government in order to see some impactful change on how the government handles oil spills, especially as climate change continues to affect us.
As I read your recollection of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness and frustration. It’s disheartening to think that despite the magnitude of the crisis, our society has not made significant strides in preventing similar disasters. It’s clear that legislative efforts to address oil spills have been limited and short-sighted, failing to address the underlying causes of these events. As we reflect on the environmental devastation caused by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, we must ask ourselves if we are truly doing enough to protect our planet. The recent oil spill in New Orleans reminds us that the threat of oil spills still looms large, and we must take action to prevent such disasters from occurring again. While legislative solutions have thus far been insufficient, we can still progress toward preventing oil spills. We must take a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of these events rather than simply responding to crises as they occur. This will require sustained effort and commitment from all levels of government, individuals, and organizations across society. As we look toward the future, I remain hopeful that we can learn from past mistakes and take meaningful action to protect our planet. It won’t be easy, but it’s a responsibility that we all share