Deepwater Horizon Disaster Two Years Later

Crime, Environment, Money, Politics

It’s been two years since the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 workers and dumped 4.9 million barrels worth of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a three-month span. Since then, BP has been embroiled in litigation from the spill, investigations have been conducted, environmental damage has been tallied, and regulations have changed for the oil industry. Yet, the surface has only been scratched in determining the repercussions of the spill.

The disaster has dropped off the radar of most of the country, aside from plenty of people still avoiding buying their gas at BP, but what’s the current status of investigation, litigation, and regulation? How have things changed in the two years since the spill, and when will the case be closed?

Here’s a look:

Environmental Factors

Because the spill was so vast and deep, scientists are a long way from knowing the full environmental impact. As if the 80-square-mile “kill zone” wasn’t horrible enough, new reports detail devastation not previously known. A new study reveals, for example, that corals as far as 11 km from the spill area have been severely impacted. Scientists discovered the corals covered with brown “frothy gunk” from the spill, and have determined that nearly half of the animals had died or showed signs of stress.

Another report, issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), indicates that the disaster was devastating to Gulf dolphin populations as well. Of 32 dolphins studied, most are underweight, anemic, and have both lung and liver disease. In addition, nearly half of the mammals are dangerously low in a hormone that regulates the metabolism and immune system as well as helping the animals manage stress.

Despite environmental devastation that likely won’t be fully understood for decades, BP has yet to admit environmental liability. Nor does the U.S. government’s case against the company address the significant environmental damage caused by the spill. BP does, however, face billions in fines for violating the Clean Water Act.


The White House Oil Spill Commission conducted an investigation on the Deepwater Horizon spill that wrapped up in January of 2011. The final report was published in September 2011 and found Halliburton, Transocean, and BP all responsible in various ways, concluding that “the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.” In response, BP set up a $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the spill, though to date, they’ve actually paid out over $26 billion total. The investigation of the spill included the Coast Guard, Minerals Management Service, and the National Academy of Engineering. Numerous hearings were held by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. BP also conducted an internal investigation of the disaster.


Last month, BP agreed to a settlement that would pay off the remainder of approximately 100,000 outstanding claimants, which the company estimates will come to about $7.8 billion in payments. BP left open the option of bringing individual lawsuits against them if people affected by the spill aren’t satisfied with the settlement amount. BP will also be responsible for other spill-related expenses such as ongoing clean-up, for which the company has budgeted $37.2 billion. Clean Water Act fines could cost BP anywhere from $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion, depending on the EPA investigation, although experts say that BP’s willingness to settle could very well keep the fines on the low end. Meanwhile BP itself is suing both Halliburton and Transocean for their own part in the disaster, though analysts doubt they’ll get much.

Regulatory Changes

Immediately after the spill, the U.S. declared a 6-month moratorium on offshore drilling that suspended work on 33 rigs while investigators assessed the danger of other rigs blowing up or spilling. In the year following, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling was overhauled and renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and given new leadership. The oil industry, meanwhile, has developed a cooperative containment system, though it hasn’t been tested and there are no guarantees it would work. Though new regulations are in place that address the design of wells, response to spills, and environmental review, the BOEMRE is underfunded and lacks the technological knowledge to be truly effective at drilling oversight. Much work is left to be done.