The Year in Review: The BP oil spill

Still in deep, deep water

On the last day of March, Barack Obama declared his readiness to open huge new sections of ocean along the Atlantic seaboard, in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska for oil exploration. "Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," he reassured the public. "They are technologically very advanced."

It was Christmas in the spring for the energy companies. But President Obama, as we now know, on that day guaranteed himself a place on the top 10 list of comically misjudged political statements of 2010. He made it, of course, just three weeks before the blow-out on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico which heralded a catastrophe so profound and so awful that the word "spill" just won't do.

Hindsight is something that nearly everyone connected to the 20 April disaster, which killed 11 workers instantly, has been turning to. Everyone can see things they would do differently given the chance now. That goes first of all for BP, of course, which was leasing the rig from Transocean Ltd, for the US government and for journalists too. It took an absurdly long time for Washington and us to grasp the enormity of what was going on.

It was almost a disaster in camouflage, in fact. When, finally, a full week after the explosion and subsequent sinking of the rig, the government proclaimed that a disaster was officially under way in the Gulf, I headed to the port town of Venice on that proboscis that is the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana. My brief was clear – to report on a coastline swamped in a new black tide with, if possible, stricken birds in the opening lines.

Someone said they could smell the fumes. Not me. And there was nothing to see either. There are no beaches in that part of Louisiana. In fact, with grassy islands escorting the mighty river out into the brine, there isn't really a discernible coastline at all. Eventually, with a colleague from Italy, I chartered a distressingly fragile fishing boat and forged south against increasingly momentous waves before finally being forced back having seen precisely nothing.

This was the time, of course, when the government was telling us the awful news that up to 5,000 barrels a day were gushing from the broken well, threatening an ecological disaster not far short of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. That turned out to be a bit wrong too, didn't it? Eventually, we were told it was 62,000 a day, eclipsing the Alaska spill. Washington and BP soon began to squabble over the flow rate numbers and politicians who were furious with the oil company started to accuse it of deliberately minimising the scale of the leak. On a visit to BP's US headquarters in Houston during the days of the doomed "top-kill" attempt in late May, I saw for myself how far the company was willing to distort the facts in an effort to minimise the damage to itself.

The squabbling over the flow rate still isn't over today because the fines the company will eventually pay will depend on the final tally of barrels that escaped. Federal scientists assert that by the time the flow was finally stopped on 15 July almost five million barrels had escaped into the ocean. BP says that they are overestimating the amount by up to 50 per cent. If the courts go for the government's numbers and also determine that the spill was caused by gross negligence on the part of the British company then that fine could reach as much as $21bn (£13.6bn).

Seeing evidence of the disaster seemed important back then, so, instead of a boat, we later chartered a helicopter. As we buzzed out over New Orleans and the grasslands towards the open ocean, a layer of low-lying cloud developed and it seemed that once again we would be thwarted. But just when our pilot said the explosion site was merely miles ahead, the fog parted and the full awfulness of an ocean smeared with rust and orange was revealed.

Yet, the clarity aboard the helicopter was quickly lost. Some of what was predicted just never happened. The oil did not get caught in that loop current and whip right around the bottom of Florida and up the eastern seaboard. The white beaches of Florida saw some tar balls but were not swamped in oil. In fact, the speed with which the oil seemed to vanish after the well's capping surprised everybody. New research now suggests that much of it may have sunk to the ocean floor. What that means for the ocean over the long term no one seems really to know.

The human and economic dramas caused by the accident have been easier to record. The hapless Tony Hayward lost his job of course and made some spectacular mis-steps. A list of mis-statements will surely feature his comment asking for his life back. Still today, residents and businesses all along the Gulf Coast are fighting for their share of the $20bn compensation fund that BP, under intense pressure from the White House, set up in June.

What awaits the US oil industry in the wake of the accident remains to be seen. The presidential commission on the spill and other inquiries will soon come to their conclusions and, while BP is certain to be assigned primary blame for what happened, Transocean and the other main contractor at the rig, Halliburton, will surely also be the target of severe criticism and fines. A months-long ban on the issuing of new drilling permits was finally lifted in October, but in reality almost none are being issued as the government tries to make sure that the lax oversight that was partly blamed for the spill is tightened up.

In the meantime, the White House announced in early December that those immense new areas for drilling announced by Mr Obama back in March will stay closed for at least seven more years after all. Because now we know the truth – oil rigs can cause spills. And when they are in very deep water the spill is hard to get to under control.

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