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The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Analysis

When oil spills happen, they usually have catastrophic effects on workers, marine life, and the surrounding communities. The largest oil spill in history is the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill. This accident caused the leakage of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over eighty-seven days (Borunda, 2020). It also impacted numerous animals, including dolphins and stingray. The DWH oil spill sparked legal action against all the companies involved in drilling. It also fundamentally changed environmental laws about marine oil spills. The DWH spill of the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the spill of millions of barrels of oil which harmed marine life and changed regulations on response to future incidents.

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The DWH oil spill is the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. This accident happened in the Gulf of Mexico starting April 20th, 2010. A company known as BP hired the DWH rig to prospect for oil in the Gulf. The oil rig operated approximately 18,300 feet below the sea level and dug an exploratory well (Borunda, 2020). The spill happened when methane gas from the well below the rig expanded and rose into the rig. The gas then ignited and exploded, resulting in the instant death of eleven workers. The oil rig sank on 22nd April, but the spill continued for about three more months until it was contained on July 15th, 2010 (Borunda, 2020). The long duration of spill adversely impacted numerous marine animals.

One of the wildlife that was affected by the oil spill is the bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. The accident had both immediate and long-term effects on the species. Before the DWH spill, Barataria Bay, Louisiana had a large population of bottlenose dolphins (Wells et al., 2017). A study of dolphins in the Barataria Bay following the DWH oil spill found that the dolphins suffered pulmonary disease and adrenal gland abnormalities (Schwacke et al., 2017). The oil spill resulted in lesions or wounds on the adrenal glands and lungs of the dolphins. They also developed poor stress response due to injuries to the adrenal pathway. The dolphins sustained lung and adrenal system impairment as many as four years after the oil spill, which indicates that the spill had certain long-term impacts that cannot fully be established yet.

In addition to damages to the lungs and adrenal system, the DWH oil spill also impacted the reproductive success of the dolphins. Using longitudinal photo-identification studies, researchers determined that the accident caused the affected dolphins to have double the reproductive failure of dolphins not exposed to the spill (Schwacke et al., 2017). Another study found that the reproductive success of dolphins in the Barataria Bay was only 20% compared to 83% for dolphins in the Sarasota Bay (Barron et al., 2020). The reduced reproductive capacity of the Barataria Bay bottlenose dolphins can be attributed to hypoadrenocorticism, which is disease where the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient hormones. Hypoadrenocorticism leaves the organism susceptible to pathogens, such as Brucella sp., that can cause stillbirths and abortions (Barron et al., 2020). The implication of the increased reproductive failure of dolphins is a substantial decrease in number of bottlenose dolphins in the Barataria Bay.

The Atlantic Stingray was also affected by the DWH oil spill. Stingray depend on their olfactory senses for functions such as finding prey, mating, and evading potential predators (Cave & Kajiura, 2018). The DWH oil caused an impairment in the olfactive function of Atlantic stingray. Following the spill, the cells of the olfactory organ of the fish came into direct contact with the sea water containing crude oil. Crude oil contains metals such as copper, cadmium, and mercury, which could impact the cells of an organism (Cave & Kajiura, 2018). In the case of the Atlantic stingray, the organism’s contact with the oil spill led to the damage of the chemo-sensory cells consequently affecting its sense of smell. The sense of smell is important to this animal, which means that this impairment threatens its survival.

Due to the catastrophic effects that the spill had on the environment, legal action was taken against the relevant companies. Three companies faced civil and criminal litigation for their involvement in the oil spoil. BP was the main multinational oil company in charge of prospection, Transocean Ltd. owned the DWH oil rig used, and Halliburton did the cement work for the project. The courts determined that these three companies were responsible, and blame was apportioned in the ratio of 67% to 30% to 3% respectively (Reuters, 2015). The three were found to engage in several cost-cutting activities, including failing to test the strength of the cement bond and misreading pressure data (Reuters, 2015). The courts determined that the accident was avoidable if the necessary precautions had been taken and the correct procedures followed. After a series of litigation spanning 5 years, BP company was required to pay $4.5 billion in fines and penalties (Reuters, 2015). The company also agreed to pay approximately $19 billion to the US government and the states of Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas on grounds of water pollution.

The DWH oil spill also led to legal reforms to create safer drilling practices. After the government issued a notice to stop drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of the Interior (DOI) conducted an internal reorganization of the Minerals Management Service. This reorganization strengthened regulations on drilling inspections, leases, and permits (Nieves-Zárate, 2021). Additionally, a guidance known as NTL No. 2010-10 was instituted in 2010 (Nieves-Zárate, 2021). This regulation requires operators to show they had reserved resources to respond promptly to disasters such as oil spills or any other loss of control (Nieves-Zárate, 2021). In 2012, the Drilling Safety Rule was updated to reflect new training requirements for rig operators and new integrity tests for cementing. Over the years, many regulations have been issued to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents. Various governmental and environmental agencies have revised the existing regulations to ensure a greater degree of safety. Finally, these guidelines are meant to ensure that in the event of an accident, it will be contained fast, resulting in less catastrophic losses than in the DWH spill.

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In conclusion, the DWH oil spill disaster harmed the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Since the spill happened for close to three months, the damage caused was significant. In particular, DWH oil spill harmed dolphins and Atlantic stingray. The accident impaired the respiratory and adrenal systems of dolphins, causing reproductive failure and decreased survival rates. It also reduced the stingray’s ability to smell, which affects its ability to spot mates, preys, and predators. Due to these and more losses to marine life and people, the US revised its laws on oil drilling, resulting in safer practices.


Barron, M. G., Vivian, D. N., Heintz, R. A., & Yim, U. H. (2020). Long-term ecological impacts from oil spills: Comparison of Exxon Valdez, Hebei Spirit, and DWH. Environmental Science & Technology, 54(11), 6456-6467.

Borunda, A. (2020). We still don’t know the full impacts of the BP oil spill, 10 years later. National Geographic.

Cave, E. J., & Kajiura, S. M. (2018). Effect of DWH crude oil water accommodated fraction on olfactory function in the Atlantic stingray, Hypanus sabinus. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 1-8.

Nieves-Zárate, M. (2021). Ten years after the DWH accident: Regulatory reforms and the implementation of safety and environmental management systems in the United States. In SPE/IADC International Drilling Conference and Exhibition.

Reuters. (2015). BP 2010 oil spill settlement: A timeline of litigation.

Schwacke, L. H., Thomas, L., Wells, R. S., McFee, W. E., Hohn, A. A., Mullin, K. D., Zolman, E., Quigley, B. Rowle, T., & Schwacke, J. H. (2017). Quantifying injury to common bottlenose dolphins from the DWH oil spill using an age-, sex-and class-structured population model. Endangered Species Research, 33, 265-279.

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Wells, R. S., Schwacke, L. H., Rowles, T. K., Balmer, B. C., Zolman, E., Speakman, T., Townsend, F.I., Tumlin, M. C., Barleycorn, A., & Wilkinson, K. A. (2017). Ranging patterns of common bottlenose dolphins. Tursiops truncatus in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, following the DWH oil spill. Endangered Species Research, 33, 159-180.

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