for Sunday Herald, 26 December 2010
The ensuing fire engulfed the rig, killing 11 workers. And then the oil started gushing into the sea, becoming the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, and the worst environmental disaster so far faced by the US.
For the next three months it kept on gushing, and estimates of the amount of oil escaping every day kept rising. BP initially suggested it might be 1,000 barrels day, but then US authorities said it could be 5,000, then 30,000, then 60,000 barrels a day.
In total nearly five million barrels of oil are now thought to have spilled into the sea between 20 April and 15 July, when the well was eventually capped. That’s over 200 million gallons – a massive amount of the black stuff, which has resulted in huge pollution problems.
In May 6,814 square miles of water were closed to all fishing by the US government, an area that was increased to nearly 87,000 square miles in June. That covered more than a third of all the federally-controlled waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
The costs for the fishing industry were estimated at $2.5 billion. The federal government officially declared a fisheries disaster in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Although the fishing bans were gradually relaxed, as late as November 4,200 square miles had to be re-closed to shrimping after balls of tar were found in nets. In the same month the length of Louisiana shoreline affected by the oil was said to extend to 320 miles.
The damage to wildlife has been widespread. By November over 6,800 dead animals had been collected from the area, including 6,100 birds, 600 sea turtles and 100 dolphins and other mammals.
Dolphins were reported to be spouting oil from their blowholes, and some were alleged to be “acting drunk”. The Gulf of Mexico is very rich is animal life and hundreds of endangered species are at risk, including five kinds of turtle.
But the consequences have resounded far beyond the local fishing and wildlife, rocking boardrooms and governments. Estimates of the total economic losses due to the disaster have varied from $3 to $30 billion – and someone is going to have to pay.
BP took an immediate hit, losing over $105 million from its market value a month after the accident. It agreed to put $20 billion into a reparation fund, and reported a second quarter loss of $17 billion, its first in 18 years.
The company’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, was widely vilified and lost his job because of the disaster. He never really recovered from telling a reporter in May: “There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do - I'd like my life back.”
In December the US government announced that it was going to sue BP, and other companies involved in the disaster. The total amount for which the company will end up being liable is unknown, but some estimates suggest it could run into hundreds of billions of pounds.
“I've seen the devastation that this oil spill caused throughout the region, to individuals and to families, to communities and to businesses, to coastlines, to wetlands, as well as to wildlife,” said the US attorney general, Eric Holder. “We will not hesitate to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those responsible for this spill.”
The accident also sent shockwaves into the Arctic and the North Sea, prompting a groundswell of opposition to new deep water drilling. The Scottish oil firm, Cairn Energy, found itself the target of protest by Greenpeace activists near Greenland.
In Brussels, the European Commission proposed a moratorium, which was fiercely opposed by the North Sea oil industry. The moratorium was defeated by Euro-MPs, however, unanimously backed by the Labour, SNP, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MEPS from Scotland.
This resulted in fierce criticism from the Scottish Green Party, who dubbed them “the shameful six”. The spill also put the spotlight on BP’s safety record in the North Sea, with the Sunday Herald revealing in June that the company had broken vital health and safety rules 54 times over the past five years.
“The Gulf oil spill focused attention on plenty of areas that the oil industry would rather no one was thinking about,” said Dr Richard Dixon, the director of WWF Scotland.
Friends of the Earth Scotland pointed out that it was the poor communities that bore the brunt in the US. “It was only when oil started to reach Florida, rather than Louisiana, that the US took it seriously,” said the group’s head of campaigns, Juliet Swann.
BP, meanwhile, is busy trying to repair its damaged reputation. It has said sorry, taken responsibility for the clean-up and ploughed untold public relations resources into “making it right”. At least, that is, until it happens again.