BP Disaster Now the Largest Accidental Oil Spill in History

August 5, 2010

New reports indicate the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has broken the world record for a single incident releasing the largest amount of oil accidentally into a marine environment.  At an estimated five million barrels of oil which has now escaped, the spill has eclipsed the size of past oil disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill in the Arctic, and the Ixtoc I spill that also occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.  At 3.3 million barrels, Ixtoc I was previously considered to be the record-holder before new estimates about the size of the BP disaster came in this week.

The new figures, released by a team of scientists assembled by the Obama administration, make it clear that BP has consistently underestimated the amount of oil gushing into Gulf waters since the explosion on April 20th that started the spill.  According to the most recent estimates, 62,000 barrels of oil were released into the Gulf each day during the early weeks of the disaster.  By the time BP apparently succeeded in capping the well on July 15th, the stream of oil had decreased slightly to 53,000 barrels per day.  These numbers dwarf those cited by BP a few months ago, when the company was still claiming the impact of the spill would be minimal.  The difficulty of accurately measuring the flow of oil no doubt contributed to early underestimations of its size. 
At the same time, BP also had an incentive to report as small a spill size as possible.  The larger the volume of oil in the Gulf, the more penalties the company will be required to pay under the Clean Water Act.  These fines could amount to as much as $5.4 billion or more.  If it is determined that the spill occurred as a result of gross negligence, BP might have to pay fines as high as $21 billion. 
Yet while the spill will cost BP in penalties and contributed to the departure of CEO Tony Hayward, the oil company will most likely suffer no irreparable damage as a result of the disaster – except, perhaps, to its public image.  Meanwhile ecosystems and communities in the Gulf region will likely feel the effects of the spill for decades to come.  Wildlife dangerously affected so far includes dolphins, sea turtles, and countless marine bird species.  The total number of animal casualties is difficult to estimate, as the vast majority almost certainly go unreported.  Shrimp fisheries and other coastal industries dependent on a healthy Gulf will also continue to suffer even if the spill cap turns out to be permanent. 
According to the New York Times, the only release of oil into marine waters larger than the BP spill was the Persian Gulf oil spill of 1991, which does not qualify as an accidental spill because it was started intentionally during armed conflict.  BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico is also smaller than the vast amount of oil that has been released into Nigeria’s Niger Delta, mainly by Shell Oil drilling projects.  In the years since oil companies have been operating in Nigeria, an estimated 13 million barrels of oil have been released in the delta region.  Yet unlike the oil gushing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, that in the Niger Delta stems not from a single gigantic spill but from the cumulative result of around 300 individual spills occurring every year. 
The scaled-up estimates regarding the size of the BP spill were ironically released the same week that US Senate leaders announced they would delay a vote on measures to respond to the disaster and increase oversight for offshore oil drilling projects.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid originally planned to bring the spill response up for a vote this month, but pushed the debate back until September once it became clear Senate Republicans would oppose a crackdown on oil companies near-unanimously.  Senate Democrats, including John Kerry of Massachusetts, expressed strong disappointment that conservative lawmakers seem unwilling to respond to the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. 
Photo credit: Jim Greenhill

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