The BP Oil Spill Cleanup Isn’t a Disaster

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, recovery is progressing better than expected

Source: Getty Images

In early March a 30,000-pound mat of oily gunk washed up on East Grand Terre, a barrier island in the mouth of Louisiana’s Barataria Bay. It was an ugly reminder of the blowout at BP’s Macondo well, a disaster that spewed millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico starting on April 20, 2010. As BP crews collected the muck, the company issued a five-year report, Environmental Recovery and Restoration, stressing that the spill didn’t do lasting damage to the ecosystem. The 40-page report described the deleterious effects as “limited in space and time, mostly in the area very close to the wellhead.” BP’s U.S. spokesman, Geoff Morrell, told reporters that the state exacerbated contamination on East Grand Terre with a 2010 beach-replenishment initiative that wound up “burying the oil under layers of sand.”

Louisiana officials saw it otherwise. “Oh, yeah, this is absolutely our fault,” Kyle Graham, executive director of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, responded sarcastically during a March 19 interview with WWLTV in New Orleans. “And the dead baby dolphin y’all saw out there was the dolphin’s fault.” Graham went on to give voice to the pessimism of politicians and environmentalists who found BP’s report incredible: “They actually believe that the Gulf, that the actions they’ve done in response, have healed the Gulf, and that all of the decades’ worth of knowledge about the effects of oil on these natural environments—the likelihood that these effects will last for generations—isn’t true.”

A more dispassionate account of the spill’s legacy would emphasize several contrasting but not contradictory realities. Independent investigations and court rulings have blamed the intertwined negligence of BP and its contractors, Transocean and Halliburton, for the debacle, which killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig. A federal judge found that the spill released 3.19 million barrels of crude. The corporate actors—chiefly BP, the majority owner of Macondo—deserved condemnation and got it. Yet as bad as the environmental and economic damage was, the recovery has been remarkable, in large part because of luck.

April 21, 2010
April 21, 2010
Photographer: Getty Images

Beginning more than a century ago with John D. Rockefeller’s monopolistic ambitions at Standard Oil, the petroleum industry has earned popular distrust. In the 2000s, BP launched a disingenuous “Beyond Petroleum” greenwashing campaign, long since abandoned. The company’s singularly poor safety record made things worse. A 2005 explosion at its Texas City Refinery killed 15 people and injured 170. BP pleaded guilty to a felony violation of federal environmental law and paid a $50 million fine. The next year, a BP pipeline rupture in Prudhoe Bay caused one of the largest spills in Alaska’s North Slope. The 87 days in 2010 when Macondo released its murky contents—much of it under the watchful eye of a televised “spill cam”—intensified disillusionment with the British-based company. Oil besmirched 1,100 of the 16,000 miles of Gulf coastline. Birds, fish, shrimp, and oysters died in droves. Maritime and tourist businesses shut down, some for months, some forever.

Which brings us back to the East Grand Terre oil mat. The 30-meter-wide mass was something of an outlier. BP’s shoreline cleanup, supervised by the U.S. Coast Guard, concluded a year ago. Since then, cleanups have resulted in the collection of 6,000 pounds of weathered oil residue mixed with sand. All told, BP has spent more than $28 billion on cleanup and damage claims. By mid-2011, according to government surveys, only a tiny fraction of the sullied coast, some 13 miles, suffered from “heavy oiling,” meaning areas with 50 percent contamination or worse. By last year, fewer than 4 miles were so categorized.

Since the spill was capped, less than 2 percent of almost 18,000 water samples and a similar proportion of more than 8,000 sediment samples have exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toxicity benchmarks. Many of the bad readings were taken in the vicinity of the Macondo wellhead, 40 miles offshore and 5,000 feet below the ocean surface, which helps explain why the harm to the coast wasn’t worse.

Wildlife populations have bounced back. Dolphins, an exception, have perished in abnormally high numbers in recent years, but scientists date the beginning of the elevated mortality trend to February 2010, two months before the oil spill. Many commercial fisheries reopened by 2011. Oyster stocks have dwindled, but studies have attributed the problem to Louisiana’s diversion of fresh water into the Gulf after the spill and to Mississippi River flooding in 2011; both reduced salinity, a death sentence for oysters.

June 11, 2010
June 11, 2010
Source: Getty Images

Every year, the equivalent of 560,000 to 1.4 million barrels of oil—perhaps a quarter of the amount that BP spilled—seeps naturally from the floor of the Gulf, estimates the National Research Council. Hydrocarbon-gobbling bacteria that thrive in the region thus were positioned to biodegrade oil from the spill. Once BP’s oil reached the surface, warm-water temperatures and ample sunlight accelerated evaporation and photooxidation. The oil from Macondo happened to be a light crude, which degrades and evaporates more quickly than heavier oil, like what escaped during the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. No one can say for sure how much BP oil residue remains in deep water—there are surely more undiscovered tar balls and oil mats than the one that washed up on East Grand Terre—but over time, it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish BP’s contribution from Mother Nature’s.

BP still has bills to pay. In a pending civil trial under the Clean Water Act, the federal government is seeking an additional $13.7 billion, most of which, by law, would have to be spent on regional restoration projects. A separate federal administrative process, called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, will generate another multibillion-dollar restoration tab for the company. Since 2010, BP has sold about $38 billion in assets, and the company’s total liability could exceed the $43 billion it has set aside.

March 31, 2015
March 31, 2015
Photographer: Julie Dermansky

Early on, BP responded to pressure from the Obama administration and plaintiffs’ lawyers by trying to conciliate. It created a $20 billion fund for spill costs—not enough, as it turned out, but a substantial gesture. Under the stewardship of compensation guru Kenneth Feinberg, who was appointed by President Obama, the company distributed $6.5 billion to more than 220,000 private claimants in only 16 months, through March 2012.

In the Gulf, an aggressive plaintiffs’ bar accused Feinberg of stinginess, while overly ambitious Louisiana officials undermined a federal-state settlement proposal BP almost finalized with the Obama administration. The fires of litigation reignited in 2013 and have burned intensely since, delaying resolution in the name of a potentially bigger aggregate payout. Some BP critics sound eager for endless courtroom warfare. “There won’t be justice for the Gulf until the case against BP is resolved and the billions in fines can begin flowing in,” says Steve Cochran, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration director. Actually, billions have already flowed, and recovery is well under way.

The bottom line: BP is still paying for the 2010 disaster in the Gulf, but the environmental damage has been far less than many feared.

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