Technology & Science

BP oil spill: 1 year later

Almost five million barrels of oil spilled into the fertile waters of the Gulf of Mexico when a BP oil well exploded a year ago this month, but the long-term effects of America's worst environmental disaster have still to be fully understood.

In its final report released Jan. 11, 2011, the U.S. commission investigating the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico noted that no single story dominated the headlines in the days following the April 20, 2010, explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that set off the spill and killed 11 workers.

Within days — as petroleum from the BP well ruptured in the explosion began making its way to the ocean surface off the coast of Louisiana — things would certainly change.

Almost five million barrels (or about 795 million litres) of oil would eventually gush into the fertile waters of the Gulf, with long-term effects on the tourism and fishery industries in the region that, a year later, have still to be fully understood.

"Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," U.S. President Barack Obama said on June 15, 2010, one month before the well was permanently sealed. "And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it's not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days.

"The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years."

Disaster and relief efforts

The Deepwater Horizon rig drilling at the site of BP's Macondo well exploded on April 20, and sank two days later — on Earth Day, no less. It was situated just 66 kilometres off the Louisiana coast.

BP in 2010

On April 20, the day of the Gulf spill, BP's share price stood at $60.48 US. That figure would plummet to a nadir of $27.02 on June 25.

Since that time, it has climbed steadily and on April 20, 2011, around $46.

On Feb. 1, the company announced fourth-quarter profits had grown by 30 per cent to $5.6 billion.

It is instructive to examine the scope of the disaster and relief efforts in terms of sheer numbers.

At the height of the cleanup, 47,829 people were deployed, along with 3,474 km of containment and absorbent boom and almost seven million litres of chemical dispersants. The disaster affected more than 1,000 kilometres of Gulf coastline.

Almost 1.5 million barrels of liquid waste were collected and another 265,450 barrels of oil burned off the surface of Gulf waters.

BP says it has spent $17.7 billion US on the cleanup since Dec. 31, and efforts are ongoing. In February, the company said it expected the total bill to be more than $40 billion.

As of March 31, 2011, there were still 184 response vessels and 2,444 personnel working on the oil spill cleanup operation in the Gulf.

Tourism a key industry

A brown pelican covered with oil from the BP well blowout stands on Queen Bess Island in Bay Barataria near Grand Isle, La., on June 14, 2010. The spill affected fish and wildlife all along the Gulf coast. ((Sean Gardner/Reuters))

The BP spill occurred as many of the Gulf states were recovering from the global recession and still reeling from the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina, which five years earlier had devastated coastal areas, primarily in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The new crisis hit the tourism industry particularly hard — in an area sometimes referred to as the "Mediterranean of the Americas." The number of visitors and hotel bookings dropped off in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

The business of tourism in the Gulf region was worth about $20 billion US in 2009, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's website.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association and released in the midst of the catastrophe on June 21 gave dire predictions for the future.

It presented two possible scenarios. The bleakest estimated it would take about three years for the region to recover, at a total cost of $22.7 billion, while a slightly more positive outlook suggested 15 months and a loss of $7.6 billion.

'Cautiously optimistic'

However, tourism officials are hopeful that a recovery might be on its way sooner than expected, The Associated Press reported April 1.

Fire boat response crews battle a blaze on the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010, following an explosion that killed 11 workers. Nearly five million barrels of oil from the well the rig was drilling would eventually be released into the Gulf of Mexico. ((U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters))

"I think we're cautiously optimistic," Colette Boehm, special projects director for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama, told the news agency. 

"With the [survey] numbers we're getting, we can't discount the fact that there is still some perception of an [oil] issue out there. But the anecdotal data that we're getting is that's getting better as time goes on."

On June 16, 2010, BP pledged to create a $20 billion fund to cover the cost of claims filed by individuals and businesses harmed by the spill.

About $30 million of that was earmarked for Louisiana's tourism industry, although $5 million has actually been released and only as of March 2011.

Meanwhile, many hotels in the region are continuing to offer rate discounts in order to keep their rooms occupied, AP reported. And tar balls continue to wash up on the shores of the Gulf coast.

Large area closed to fishing

The Gulf coast fishery was also hit hard by the spill.

In 2008, about 590 million kilograms of commercial fish and shellfish were caught off the coast, about one-third of the country's total domestic catch, according to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service. How much the spill will impact that figure has yet to be seen.

The BP spill occurred as the season for many types of fish and seafood were about to begin, forcing the government to halt activity in the area. On June 21, 2010, 225,209 square kilometres of Gulf fishing waters were closed, more than a third of the total fishing area.

However, since Feb. 2 of this year, only a small zone around the wellhead remains closed, and U.S. officials say the catch is again safe to eat.

Environmental effects

Though the spill released millions of litres of petroleum, the final report by the oil spill commission — a seven-member board that included government officials, environmentalists and university researchers — says the long-term effects might not be as serious as once thought.

Canadians travelling south

Numbers from the past winter indicate the spill did not have an impact on the number of Canadians travelling to the southern U.S., according to Michael MacKenzie, executive director of the Canadian Snowbirds Association, a non-profit advocacy group that claims to represent 70,000 Canadians who winter in the southern U.S., mostly in Florida.

"I don't think it's on anyone's radar," he said.

In fact, the number of people going to Tampa, Fla., increased 15 per cent in December of last year, MacKenzie said.

Travel is up across the board in the state, he said, largely because of the high Canadian dollar and because the crisis had subsided by the time snowbirds were making their travel plans.

"By the time December rolled around … it wasn't top of mind with anyone," he said.

"However widespread (and in many cases severe) the natural resource damages are, those observed so far have fallen short of some of the worst expectations and reported conjectures during the early stages of the spill," the commission's report said.

On the other hand, the report notes a comprehensive understanding of the marine life in the area, particularly with respect to deepwater communities, is lacking.

"Scientists simply do not yet know how to predict the ecological consequences and effects on key species," it reads.

On April 7, 2011, the Reuters news agency reported that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists had detected signs of oil from the BP spill in eight of 406 dead dolphins found in the Gulf.

NOAA officials, moreover, are expecting an increase in dolphin deaths as the bottlenose calving season starts in the middle of April. Between 2,000 and 5,000 dolphins bear their young in the Gulf coast region during this time.

U.S. officials weren't releasing detailed information on the dolphin problem because of ongoing civil and criminal investigations involving BP, Reuters said.

Oil industry

On May 30, 2010, the U.S government imposed a moratorium on all deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the ban was lifted Oct. 12 of that year, following a series of legal challenges from the oil industry.

Since then, the U.S. government has issued nine deepwater permits in the region to companies that were able to meet new safety requirements, Reuters reported.

Tony Hayward poses for the media outside BP's headquarters in London on July 27, 2010, after stepping down as CEO of the company, three months after the oil spill. Hayward was strongly criticized for the way he handled BP's response to the spill. ((Toby Melville/Reuters))

On March 30, the Associated Press reported that U.S. Department of Justice investigators were considering pursuing manslaughter and perjury charges against BP and its managers, including former chief executive Tony Hayward.

Paul Barnes, manager for the Atlantic Canada region for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the Gulf spill had a limited impact on Canada's offshore industry, which consists of two drilling rigs off the coast of Newfoundland and a handful of production units in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia.

Barnes said stronger government oversight makes a BP-like spill less likely to happen in Canada and that in the wake of the spill, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board purchased new booms and skimmers to ensure that if a spill did occur, the industry would be better equipped to clean it up.

In the aftermath of the spill, four government reviews of the offshore oil industry were launched in Canada, but only one, done by the Senate, has been completed. Last August, the Senate review concluded that there was no reason to halt offshore oil exploration and development in Canada.

The remaining three reviews, undertaken by the House of Commons, the National Energy Board and the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, are still underway.

The largest change has been in public perception, Barnes says.

"There is probably a heightened awareness by the general population to offshore activity in light of the Gulf of Mexico spill," he said.

On April 7, 2011, groups from Prince Edward Island, including the provincial fishermen's association and local politicians, voiced concerns over a possible exploratory well in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

"I know Canada has much greater safeguards than our friends to the south do," explained Dave Macdonald, mayor of Souris, P.E.I. "But at the same time, we don't want another Louisiana on our shores."