On April 20, 2010, ten years ago, a “blowout” occurred on the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, killing 11 workers and spilling millions of barrels of oil from BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. Four million barrels of oil flowed from the damaged well over an 87-day period, before it was capped on July 15, 2010. Shortly after the accident, President Obama instituted a six-month moratorium on deep-water offshore drilling. On December 15, 2010, the United States filed a complaint in District Court against BP Exploration & Production and several other defendants alleged to be responsible for the spill. Settlements were made with several of the defendants, including the settlement with BP Exploration & Production for a $5.5 billion Clean Water Act penalty and up to $8.8 billion in natural resource damages. As of 2018, BP had spent $65 billion on the spill. Since the accident, the offshore drilling industry has taken significant preventative actions.
In 2011, the American Petroleum Institute founded the Center for Offshore Safety in Houston to promote the highest level of safety for offshore operations through a program that addresses management practices, communication, and teamwork. The center provides tools, good practices, and implementation techniques, and collects and publishes safety performance data from its members annually.
In 2010, some of the equipment that was needed to stop the flow of oil had to be built from scratch. Today, before a company can drill for oil, that equipment is standing by in case of an emergency. Two companies are on alert and have the equipment to respond: Marine Well Containment Company (MWCC), which covers large firms such as BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Conoco and HWCG, which serves smaller independent oil companies. In 2010, four companies originally spent $1 billion to create MWCC and six more have joined since then, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment and training.
At MWCC’s facility near Corpus Christi, Texas, there are five capping stacks that are used for different ocean depths, pressures, and temperatures. They are about two stories tall and weigh as much as 40 full-sized SUVs. If the oil flow cannot be immediately stopped, MWCC can use equipment to capture the oil put it in tankers and bring it onshore until a relief well can be drilled to stop the flow.
A new federal regulatory agency was created in 2011—the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The agency issued the Well Control Rule in 2016—a complex collection of regulations designed to prevent future blowouts, providing oil drillers detailed requirements to safely drill an offshore well. The Trump administration modified the rule in 2019 to be more attuned to the different characteristics of the industry.
According to the agency’s current director, compared to the past six years, the agency increased the number of inspections by 26 percent, increased the number of inspections per facility by 86 percent, and increased the numbers of inspectors by 12 percent.
Offshore Gulf of Mexico Oil Production
Offshore oil production in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico has been increasing since 2013 when it hit its lowest level of production after the Deep Water Horizon accident. In 2019, offshore oil production totaled almost 2 million barrels per day, increasing by 50 percent since 2013. In 2019, the Federal offshore Gulf of Mexico produced 15 percent of total U.S. oil production.
In the past decade, there has not been another major offshore oil spill in the United States like the Deepwater Horizon event. In fact, the two companies standing by to cap a well blowout have never even deployed their billions of dollars’ worth of equipment for anything other than drills. That shows that the safety measures undertaken by the industry are working to prevent another blowout. The offshore Gulf of Mexico is an important source of U.S. oil, supplying 15 percent of the nation’s oil—an important part of our national energy security.