What A Mess: The Impact of the April 20, 2010 BP Oil Spill

Many people remember the dreadful day of the BP Oil spill (aka the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill), in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people, damaged coral and ocean water, and “harmed or killed 82,000 birds, 6,165 sea turtles, and nearly 25,900 marine mammals”11. On April 20, 2010, one mile beneath the surface of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig (leased by BP from 2001-2013), a cement seal gave way and caused the cap on the well to malfunction. Oil began spilling into the ocean. Over the 87 days it took to cap the well, 3.19 million barrels (more than 130 million gallons) spilled into the Gulf.

During and after the spill, oil ended up in multiple places. Some of it went to the surface which moved throughout the ocean quickly due to winds and about 20% ended up on the ocean floor which destroyed coral and killed marine life. Additionally, a 22-mile oil plume was reported. This happens when ocean water and oil mix and stay just below the surface.

About 7 miles southwest of the well lies a coral reef which has been damaged by the BP Oil spill. The coral, once colorful and well-nourished, is now dull and brown with evident signs of pollution. Some portions of the coral are bleached while others have suffered tissue loss.   According to the Guardian6, “Almost half of the 43 corals observed at that site showed evidence of impact.” Coral is covered in a layer of mucus which holds bacteria. When something in its environment changes, such as an oil spill, the bacteria changes which can be threatening to the coral (Penn State News8). The chemicals within the oil are toxic to coral.

There is no clear way of knowing which coral the oil spill has affected because after the spill the oil comes up through sea floor cracks. This can stay in one place or disperse with the current to multiple sites.

Ecosystems were affected immediately with pelicans covered in oil, fish found dead with brown oil sludge covering them, turtles covered in oil on the beaches and dolphins were dying. Sea birds were affected by tiny amounts of oil getting on their feathers, causing their inability to fly and dive down into the water to get food. Seafood restaurants had to shut down due to water and seafood contamination.

Oil spills are difficult to clean up for many reasons. It depends on the amount spilled, the type of water (salt vs. fresh), type of oil (crude vs. refined) and environmental factors (weather, wind, tide, current, direction, speed, air and water temperatures and ice if any). Barriers are put up to keep oil from spreading further and skimmers are put in the water to remove oil from the surface before it reaches the beaches, harbors, etc.  For the BP Oil spill, 1.4 million gallons of chemical dispersants were used to clean up the oil. However, these dispersants can linger behind and affect animals and the food chain.

Ian Somerhalder was born and raised in Louisiana. He spent most of his time outdoors, enjoying the beauty of nature. It was after witnessing the BP Oil spill and Hurricane Katrina Ian was left wondering what he could do to help. From his desire to have humans come together to empower, educate and collaborate to help avoid these catastrophic events which destroy our planet, the Ian Somerhalder Foundation was born. ISF has acquired just under 100 acres of bayou land in Louisiana near the BP spill area with a vision to create a sanctuary and preserve. It is our hope to protect this land and the environment around it.

Recently, another oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico just southeast of Venice, LA. A fractured pipeline a mile below the surface of the ocean caused 672,000 gallons of oil to spill into the water. Almost all of this was invisible to the eye. “This spill, the largest since Deepwater Horizon, leaked 16,000 barrels of oil in less than two days”5. People could not see there was a spill right away. It was discovered the next day when the systems were not adding up correctly. It had looked as though the oil disappeared and had not made it to shore. There was not enough oil on the surface of the ocean to have a cleanup. While the fracture is not fixed, the wells have been shut down so oil will not continue to flow out. It is not yet known what the long-term effects will be from this oil spill.

Ocean Portal1 stated, “About a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (while the oil was still leaking out of the Macondo wellhead) BP announced that they would provide $500 million to fund an independent research program that would study the impacts of the spill on the environment and public health. With this funding, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) was formed as a 10-year independent research program. The GoMRI research board, which is independent from BP, makes funding and research decisions and as of early 2014 over $175 million has been distributed to research institutions, many of which are located in Gulf states.” At the outset, the twenty-person GoMRI board adopted five main research themes to focus on: physical movement of the oil and dispersant, degradation of the oil and its interaction with the ecosystem, environmental effects of the oil and dispersant, development of technology for improved response and remediation, and the effects of oil and dispersant on human health. GoMRI funded studies have examined where the oil went after the spill, and how the oil affected many types of marine life, including deep-sea coral ecosystems, seabirds, and jellyfish.1

 On September 4, 2014, in New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier made a ruling for this catastrophe. BP was 67% to blame, Transocean 30%, and Halliburton (who installed the concrete core) was 3%13

Since the oil spill, other changes have also been made. The Obama administration proposed multiple ideas to avoid catastrophic oil spills. According to the LA Times, “blades were doubled-up on the blowout preventer to help it from failing. The number of inspectors was also increased from 55 to 92.”10

The Ian Somerhalder Foundation also wants to do our part. As part of ISF’s mission to collaborate on projects to positively impact the planet, ISF gave a $10,000 grant in 2015 to “The Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany” in Louisiana. This grant helped to fund the community’s fight against the hazardous affects which oil shale fracking has on the environment.9

While the government has taken many steps to prevent another catastrophic oil spill from happening, we have to wonder if it’s enough.

* This infographic can be downloaded and shared here

What a Mess Infographic

Written by Melissa Clancy

Edited by Bob Stone

Infographic by Jim Fournier


  1. http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill
  2. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/14/us/gulf-oil-spill-unknowns/index.html
  3. https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/how-do-oil-spills-affect-coral-reefs.html
  4. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2012/03/27/bp-spill-caused-graveyard-corals
  5. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/science/gulf-oil-spill-louisiana.html
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/mar/26/bp-oil-spill-deepwater-ho0rizon
  7. http://www.pnas.org/content/109/50/20303
  8. http://news.psu.edu/story/281138/2013/07/10/how-does-oil-affect-corals
  9. http://www.isfoundation.com/focus-sub-page/environment-grants
  10. http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-gulf-anniversary-20150418-story.html
  11. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/dirty_energy_development/oil_and_gas/gulf_oil_spill/a_deadly_toll.html
  12. https://www.britannica.com/event/Deepwater-Horizon-oil-spill-of-2010
  13. http://time.com/3268978/bp-gulf-oil-spill-louisiana-court/