With Earth Day’s 50th anniversary coming up in 2020, it’s important to remember that a strong impetus for the first Earth Day in 1970 was the Santa Barbara (CA) oil spill that occurred only 90 miles from Los Angeles in January and February 1969, at the time the largest offshore oil spill. It’s still the fifth-largest offshore oil spill in US history, ranking behind, among others, the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.
And just in time for an annual remembrance on Earth Day, April 20th marks the 9th anniversary of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. We shouldn’t forget that the fossil fuel age is not just about carbon dioxide concentrations increasing in the atmosphere, it’s about significant adverse impacts on people and the environment of our nearly total dependence on oil, gas, and coal. If you want drama about the rig blowout that led to the oil spill, you can watch the movie. As we begin the long transition to a new energy era, it’s important to make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes in different guises, e.g., in the current push for switching to “carbon-free” nuclear power plants.
There have been numerous significant offshore and onshore oil spills in the United States, both from drilling and ship collisions, dating back more than fifty years. For a detailed map, here’s a reference.
The blowout of the well resulted in a fire on the drilling rig and the death of 11 workers. BP pled guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter for these deaths. The resulting oil spill was the largest in US history and lasted nearly three months. An estimated 210 million gallons of oil was spilled into the Gulf during that time. Severe effects on the environment and Gulf Coast economy were felt for several years afterward. It is generally considered the worst single environmental disaster in US history.
Beyond the environmental damage, the disaster was incredibly costly for BP. In July 2015 BP reached an $18.7 billion settlement with the US government, the affected states and 400 local jurisdictions. Eventually BP's costs for the clean-up, environmental and economic damages and penalties had reached $54 billion. In January 2018 a detailed estimate of the "Ultimate Costs of the Oil Spill", published in the Journal of Corporate Accounting and Finance, amounted to $146 billion.