Report — From the June 2015 issue

Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea

Following the trail of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico

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The Gulf of Mexico is one of the world’s most ecologically diverse bodies of water, home to more than 15,000 marine species. Its coastal areas contain half of the wetlands in the United States — some 5 million acres — which provide habitat for a variety of birds and fish. Mangrove forests line the Gulf shore, and its shallow waters are filled with sea grass. Before the oil spill, more than 60 percent of all oysters harvested in U.S. waters were caught in the Gulf. Today that share has dropped to about 40 percent. Many threatened and endangered species also live in the Gulf: sea turtles, Florida manatees, whooping cranes, and bald eagles. Dolphins are a frequent sight. Giant squid, jellyfish, and octopuses swimming through the Gulf’s waters pass some of America’s lushest and most imperiled coral reefs.

As Atlantis carried us farther from shore, the fishing boats dropped away and we gradually entered clear, open ocean. Mississippi and Florida are the only Gulf states that do not allow offshore drilling in their coastal waters, which extend several miles out from shore. But as soon as we entered federal waters, oil rigs and drilling platforms began to appear. We sailed through the rigs for twelve hours and, near eleven o’clock at night, arrived at our destination, Mississippi Canyon Block 252 (MC252). This was the roughly 5,760-acre lease area that contained the Macondo oil well.

Illustration by John Ritter

Illustration by John Ritter

Much of the western and central Gulf of Mexico has been parceled into a patchwork of oil and natural-gas lease blocks. A web of underwater pipelines carries the fuel to shore. MC252 sits in an industrial corridor that is occupied by the world’s largest oil companies — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, Eni, Noble Energy, Hess, and BP. Some 17 percent of U.S. oil comes from the Gulf, nearly 80 percent of that from depths of 1,000 feet or more below the ocean’s surface. In 2008, BP leased MC252 from the Department of the Interior, paying $34 million for ten years. The company then leased the Deepwater Horizon, a semisubmersible oil rig, from Transocean, which also ran the rig’s daily operations. On February 15, 2010, the crew of the Deepwater Horizon started drilling at the Macondo site, some 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Eventually they dug through more than two miles of rock and sediment, to a depth of 18,360 feet.

The Gulf of Mexico’s high concentrations of methane, along with other natural features, make it an especially dangerous place to drill. Natural gas, which is lighter than oil, can get into oil pipes and overwhelm a well’s pressure-control systems, leading to a blowout. At 9:45 on the night of April 20, 2010, as the crew worked to prepare the well, methane escaped from the Macondo and shot up the steel pipe that connected it to the Deepwater Horizon. Inside the rig, sparks from machinery ignited the gas, setting off a series of explosions. The two men who were working near the pipe, in the rig’s mudroom, were quickly incinerated. They were the first of eleven crew members to die. At 10:21 a.m. on April 22, the Deepwater Horizon collapsed into the ocean. Its wreckage remains strewn around the well to this day.

When the Macondo well blew, none of the oil companies operating in the deep waters of the Gulf were prepared, even though the largest among them — ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP — had claimed to the Department of the Interior that they could handle a far worse deepwater blowout. So BP applied methods designed for smaller, shallow-water spills. In May, employing what were known as the “top kill” and “junk shot” approaches, BP dumped drilling mud, golf balls, and tire rubber onto the well. Nothing worked. In the eighty-seven days it took to secure the well with a temporary cap, more than a hundred million gallons of oil and half a million tons of natural gas — most of which was methane — escaped into the Gulf. Eventually, BP performed the one operation that, however risky and time-consuming, it knew how to do: it drilled another well. One hundred and fifty-two days after the blowout, BP’s relief well intersected the Macondo borehole, allowing the company to pump in mud and cement. This remains the only proven method for permanently sealing a blown-out well in deep water.

By May 2011, BP’s oil had sickened or killed more than 100,000 Gulf animals: 28,500 sea turtles, 82,000 birds, and more than 26,000 marine mammals, including several sperm whales. Too small or too numerous to count were the vast numbers of dead fish, crustaceans, insects, and plants that washed up onshore. Most of the other organisms initially killed by the spill died at sea and were never seen.

The creatures that inhabited the coldest and darkest realms of the Gulf were not spared, either. Until the nineteenth century, when a pioneering British naval expedition was able to collect living samples from the seafloor, there was no evidence that animals could survive in the ocean’s deepest waters. In 1977, more than a century later, researchers used Alvin to explore the Galápagos Rift, in the Pacific Ocean, at depths never before visited. To their surprise, they observed a broad diversity of life, including many previously unknown species. A 1984 Alvin dive revealed abundant populations thriving in the deepest parts of the Gulf, as well. In December 2010, Joye and her crew surveyed the sea life near the Macondo wellhead. The view from the submarine revealed a barren landscape. The spill had chased out or killed anything that had been living down there. “It’s so strange to see nothing along the seafloor, particularly at this depth and in this area,” Joye wrote in her 2010 Alvin dive report. “I saw nothing on the bottom that was living,”she told me.

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is the author of several books, including Black Tide (Wiley). Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Light, Sweet, Crude,” appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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