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Deepwater Horizon: a decade of disaster

Ten years after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the biggest oil spill in US history, coastal communities and ecosystems are still grappling with its effects. Explosions at the drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana on April 20th, 2010, released an astonishing 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over almost three months. The muck washed up onto more than 1,300 miles of shoreline spanning from Texas to Florida. Eleven people lost their lives on the rig. Tens of thousands of birds, sea turtles, marine mammals, and fish died in the aftermath.

The crisis began before The Verge was founded in 2011, but scientists are still discovering the extent of the damage done. The toxic extent of the spill could have been 30 percent larger than previously thought because of “invisible oil” that satellites couldn’t detect, a February 2020 study found. As climate change pushes tides higher onto low-lying shorelines, the BP spill eroded land on Louisiana’s already jeopardized coast, a 2016 study revealed.

BP’s culpability in the crisis has also unfolded over time. The oil giant was found guilty of “gross negligence” leading to the catastrophic spill. As a result, it has had to pay $65 billion in claims and clean-up costs.   

See our coverage of the Deepwater Horizon fallout here.

  • Justine Calma

    Apr 20, 2020

    Justine Calma

    Offshore drilling has dug itself a deeper hole since Deepwater Horizon

    Image: Getty Images

    Ever since the first oil well was built in the Gulf of Mexico in 14 feet of water in 1938, technology advancements made it easier to move farther away from shore in pursuit of new oil reserves, at times without a plan for worst-case scenarios. Just one year before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig became the site of the most devastating oil spill in American history, it succeeded in drilling what was the deepest oil and gas well ever at the time. The rig bored through more than 35,000 feet of ocean floor while working in waters more than 4,130 feet deep. 

    Explosions rocked the rig on the evening of April 20th, 2010, after the ultra-deepwater semisubmersible rig Deepwater Horizon had just completed drilling another exploratory well. That night’s events killed 11 people, set loose 200 million gallons of oil that spewed out into the Gulf over the course of nearly three months, and harmed marine ecosystems and coastal economies for years. 

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  • Justine Calma

    Feb 13, 2020

    Justine Calma

    New Deepwater Horizon data reveals invisible oil that satellites may have missed

    An oil slick on the outside edge of the
    Photo by Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images

    “Invisible oil” escaped the view of satellites that were tasked with measuring the extent of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, according to a new study. In the Science Advances article, researchers argue that updated techniques need to be deployed alongside satellite measurements to track future oil spills below the water’s surface.

    BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig spewed more than 200 million gallons into the Gulf in 2010. At the time, satellite readings were used to determine which areas in the Gulf were off-limits to fishing, but the dangers posed by the spilled oil to fish and the humans who eat them spread beyond those boundaries. In places where oil from the spill was no longer visible from space, it still persisted in concentrations that were enough to be toxic. The extent of the spill could have been as much as 30 percent larger than previous estimates, according to study authors.

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  • Justine Calma

    Dec 10, 2019

    Justine Calma

    This was the decade climate change slapped us in the face

    NurPhoto Pics of the Year 2013
    Photo by NurPhoto / Corbis via Getty Images

    It was springtime at the start of a new decade when a series of explosions brought down the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April 2010, triggering the largest oil spill in US history. Footage of the plumes of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico flooded newscasts as 200 million gallons spewed out over 87 days. The sight was transfixing: the ugly lifeblood of industrialization no longer hidden away in pipelines, but unleashed. 

    It was the start of a decade that would force people and policymakers to come face-to-face with the unintended consequences of building a world by burning fossil fuels. Between then and today, broken temperature records, unnatural disasters, and homes lost would show just how catastrophically humans had transformed the planet. It’s been a decade of adapting to a new normal while clumsily figuring out how to safeguard the future from a climate crisis that’s only going to get worse.  

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  • Alessandra Potenza

    Nov 23, 2016

    Alessandra Potenza

    The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused widespread land erosion in Louisiana

    Oil on the shores of Bay Jimmy, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, in 2010.
    Oil on the shores of Bay Jimmy, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, in 2010.
    Bruce A. Davis, Department of Homeland Security

    Marnie Winter remembers seeing the oil spread through the waters of Barataria Bay in southeastern Louisiana. It was 2010, just a few weeks after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico began the largest marine oil spill in US history. About 4 million barrels of oil were poured into the sea, affecting more than 1,300 miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida.

    “It was scary,” says Winter, who’s the assistant director of the environmental department at Jefferson parish, one of the three parishes surrounding Barataria Bay. She and other local officials began working with the Coast Guard to keep the oil from reaching the shore, but despite their efforts, the oil began coating the Louisiana marshlands. “It was no surprise that the vegetation would die,” Winter says.

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  • Lauren Goode

    Jul 14, 2016

    Lauren Goode

    BP estimates it will pay an additional $2.5 billion for the Deepwater Horizon debacle

    BP Global plans to announce in its upcoming second quarter earnings report that it will pay an additional $2.5 billion for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, according to The Guardian. The additional charges bring BP's total pretax fines to date to $61.6 billion, or $44 billion post-taxes.

    The company's chief financial officer has assured investors that any other outstanding claims related to the spill would not have material impact on the company.

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  • Lizzie Plaugic

    Apr 12, 2016

    Lizzie Plaugic

    Deepwater Horizon oil spill linked to newborn and fetal dolphin deaths

    Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

    Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have linked an "unusual mortality event" involving bottlenose dolphins along the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In a recent study published in Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, the researchers determined that fetal and newborn dolphins in the spill area were more likely to have died in utero or shortly after birth than dolphins outside the area.

    From February 2010 to December 2013, the scientists evaluated 69 perinatal dolphins found stranded in areas heavily affected by the spill and compared them to 26 bottlenose dolphins unaffected by the spill, Motherboard reports. The dolphins stranded in the spill zone were much smaller than those outside of it, suggesting they were preterm fetuses or "very young newborns," the study says.

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  • Ashley Carman

    Apr 4, 2016

    Ashley Carman

    BP to pay US government $20.8 billion for Gulf oil disaster

    BP To Cut 3000 Jobs As Earnings Plunge
    Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    A federal judge has approved BP’s $20 billion settlement over its 2010 oil spill, the Associated Press reports. First reached in October, the final settlement amount accounts for civil claims against the company set forth by the Department of Justice and five Gulf states. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch previously called the settlement "the largest with a single entity in American history."

    While $5.5 billion will go toward penalties incurred under the Clean Water Act, most of the money will be given to five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas — and 400 local government entities to cover damages from the spill. BP has already spent a reported $28 billion on cleanup and compensation. The Deepwater Horizon incident occurred after an offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and consequently dumped 4.9 million barrels of oil into the surrounding water. Eleven people were killed and marine life in the area was devastated.

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  • BP will pay states $18.7 billion for 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill

    BP has reached a settlement in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill case. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, which took place in 2010, killed 11 rig workers and blew the cap off a well, spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf for months. Now the company will have to pay $18.7 billion to the US government and five states over the course of 18 years.

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  • Jacob Kastrenakes

    May 22, 2015

    Jacob Kastrenakes

    Dolphin deaths in Gulf of Mexico linked to Deepwater Horizon oil spill

    Large numbers of bottlenose dolphins have been washing up on the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest spill to take place in US waters. While it seems like it should be a safe assumption to link the spill to the dolphins' deaths, there's been a holdup: the dolphins actually started washing up in elevated levels two months before the spill, potentially because of a cold winter.

    But the deaths have continued into 2015, and researchers have been trying all the while to determine what the actual cause is. In the latest study, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describe serious health issues in washed-up dolphins that are linked to petroleum product exposure, strengthening the link between dolphins' deaths and the BP-owned well's spill.

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  • Deepwater Horizon spill left an oil ring the size of Rhode Island at the bottom of the sea, study says

    There's an oil ring the size of Rhode Island at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and researchers say it belongs to oil company BP. According to a study published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about 10 million gallons of coagulated oil now coats the sea floor, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that resulted in 172 million gallons of oil being spilled into the Gulf in 2010. The rest of the oil, however, is still largely unaccounted for.

    "Based on the evidence, our findings suggest that these deposits are from Macondo oil that was first suspended in the deep ocean, then settled to the sea floor without ever reaching the ocean surface," David Valentine, one of the study's authors and a biogeochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the National Science Foundation.

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  • BP found grossly negligent in 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill

    Win McNamee

    BP first pled guilty to criminal charges over the spill, which is among the largest in US history, back in 2014, then agreeing $4.5 billion in fines. That didn't cover charges over the Clean Water Act, however, which is where BP may see the most significant damages. The case isn't over yet, either. This is only its first phase, focusing on loss of control over the well, the following fire and explosion, the sinking of the oil rig, and how oil started to be discharged. A second phase of the trial will focus on efforts to stop the spill and how much oil entered the water.

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  • Josh Lowensohn

    Sep 3, 2014

    Josh Lowensohn

    Halliburton will pay $1.1 billion to settle Deepwater Horizon oil disaster lawsuits

    Halliburton has agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle much of its part in 2010's Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster. The incident killed 11 people, and resulted in the largest oil spill in this history of the US after offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded. Halliburton was responsible for cement mixture used to seal the oil well, which ended up being faulty.

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  • Damning study blames BP oil spill for heart defects in fish

    To study the effects of the BP oil disaster, scientists recreated the oceanic environment that yellowfin amberjack, yellowfin tuna and bluefin tuna larvae would have encountered in 2010 in the lab. They did so by introducing the larvae to Deepwater Horizon oil samples at environmental conditions that matched those of the spill. Fish are extremely vulnerable during development, so studying fish larvae is the most direct way of demonstrating the effect of noxious compounds.

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  • Amar Toor

    Mar 20, 2014

    Amar Toor

    BP wins new US oil contracts four years after Deepwater Horizon disaster

    British oil giant BP won 24 bids to begin offshore exploration in the Gulf of Mexico this week, just days after federal authorities lifted a ban imposed against the company for its involvement in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. As Reuters reports, BP submitted 31 bids ahead of Wednesday's auction in New Orleans, held by the US Interior Department. Its 24 winning bids are valued at $41.6 billion, though competitors Shell, Chevron, and Freeport McMoRan submitted winning bids that are worth more.

    BP had been barred from bidding on new federal contracts for over a year following the Deepwater Horizon spill, but the ban was lifted last week after the company struck an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the agreement, BP will implement stronger safety and corporate governance rules, and will be monitored by an EPA-approved independent auditor over the next five years. BP had filed a lawsuit against the EPA to have the ban lifted, but will now drop the suit as part of this month's agreement.

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  • Amar Toor

    Jul 26, 2013

    Amar Toor

    Halliburton admits to destroying evidence in wake of Gulf oil spill

    deepwater horizon
    deepwater horizon

    The US Department of Justice this week announced that Halliburton will plead guilty to charges of destroying evidence related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Houston-based oil company will pay a statutory fine of $200,000 — the maximum allowed under the law — and has agreed to three years of probation.

    The April 2010 drilling rig explosion killed 11 people and left miles of shoreline drenched in oil, marking the largest offshore oil spill in US history. BP owned a 65 percent stake in the Macondo oil well that ruptured, and Halliburton was responsible for sealing it with cement. BP finally stemmed the flow of oil on July 15th, 2010 — 85 days after it first erupted.

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