The Gulf Oil Spill
The Gulf oil spill, also known as the BP spill or the Deepwater Horizon Spill, was one of the most significant environmental accidents in history. The ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources has developed this website for members and the public alike as a resource for information relating to the BP Spill. The topical links provided relate to the environmental issues that have evolved since the incident occurred and contain basic information relating to those issues and ideas for useful resources. Additional links to Section resources and outside websites provide more detailed information. The Section will make an effort to update the information on this page on a periodic basis as the issues continue to develop. Certain section resources are provided free of charge to the public. Others are provided free of charge to section members as a benefit of membership. Still additional materials are available for purchase from the ABA Web Store.
From the time the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform sank into the deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010 killing eleven, to the point the leak was eventually capped about three months later, the spill had infamously become the largest marine oil spill in history and its environmental and economic impacts were widespread. It is estimated that as many as 4.9 million barrels of oil escaped from the well and that at its largest extent, it covered over 68,000 square miles of ocean.
The environmental and legal fallout from the spill is multifaceted. As a direct result of the accident, prime fishing grounds in the Gulf were closed at the height of the season, the tourism industry nearly ground to a halt, thousands of birds, turtles and marine mammals were coated in oil, and clean up crews worked around the clock to clean up oil and prevent it from causing further damage. Almost as soon as the spill occurred, the litigation began. Over 300 federal actions have been filed against BP, Transocean, Halliburton and have mostly been consolidated in the Eastern District of Louisiana. The suits include everything from wrongful death actions under maritime law to economic damages to businesses affected by the spill, to citizen’s suits by environmental groups – one seeking nearly $20 billion in penalties against BP for violations of the Clean Water Act. Many claims may not result in litigation due to a $20 billion fund established by BP and now administered by the federal government. Other damages not yet assessed against BP include natural resource damages that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently assessing with the affected states, and penalties under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for the taking of endangered species. The Department of Justice is also investigating possible criminal charges.
The spills impact also made itself felt in . The Obama Administration was quick to put a moratorium on off-shore drilling and reorganize the Minerals Management Service into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement with clear divisions between collection of fees and environmental protection, safety and enforcement. Congress was also quick to introduce legislation that would revise maritime liability law to allow the families of those killed in the explosion of the rig to sue for non-monetary losses, such as pain and suffering or loss of companionship and to repeal the 19th century law limiting liability to the value of the lost rig. Legislation has also been introduced to remove the $75 million cap on liability for spills imposed by the Oil Pollution Control Act. Whether such legislation is passed is too early to say. However, new legislation has been passed by Congress after almost every major environmental catastrophe.
Just weeks after flow from the well was finally quenched, the government reported that the oil appeared to be completely gone. There was suspicion of deep sea plumes that could linger for years and wreak havoc on the ecosystem. The government reports, however, that the oil is gone. From all indications, it appears that in addition to weathering and evaporation, a previously undiscovered microbe that had evolved in the Gulf of Mexico where there are frequent – albeit much smaller – naturally occurring oil and gas seeps, may have digested much of the remaining oil. Nevertheless, the long-term effects on marine life from this unprecedented spill and the use of dispersants in the Gulf remain unknown. In the meantime, NOAA has reopened much of the Gulf to fishing and the moratorium has been lifted. Things are slowly getting back to normal, but it is likely to be years, if not decades, before many of the issues resulting from the spill will be resolved.