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British Petroleum Company: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Case Study

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Updated: Jun 23rd, 2022

The BP oil spill which is also referred to as the Deep water horizon oil spill took place in the Gulf of Mexico in the United States. It took place in the year 2010 and has been termed as one of the worst crises in the company. It affected the economy that is dependent on the ocean.

Fishing could no longer go on with the gushed oil. The oil spill has devastating consequences on the marine and human life. It also disrupted activities along the Gulf of Mexico (Landau, p. 10). The spill of the oil took place within a span of three months without being abated.

The oil spill resulted from an oil gusher at the sea floor as a result of the deep water horizon explosion. Notably, eleven BP workers were killed in the explosion. Also, the explosion left many others with injuries. This was one of the worst environmental disasters to have occurred in the history of oil exploration within the petroleum industry. The disaster left the company with a tough responsibility of stopping the oil spill.

This was a daunting task for BP. The company was forced to apply several techniques one of them being systems engineering (Hagerty and Ramseur, p. 1). Therefore, this paper analyzes the projects that were initiated and used in mitigating this environmental disaster (Stephen, Gold and King, Jr., para. 1-3). The paper looks at the problems, costs, risks, schedules, timelines, success, and lessons that can be derived from the response projects.

The first projects were regarded to be rapid response projects to aid in stopping a further spill of the oil in the ocean waters. Other subsequent response projects were aimed at averting the environmental impacts that had resulted from the spill (Hagerty and Ramseur, p. 1).

Capping the leaks – Detection and response to leakages

There are a number of standardization rules that have been set and which can be used in enhancing the pace at which capping is done. This includes the presence of a working oil detection system. Early detection of the oil spill is a milestone as it can help early taming of what would have becomes an environmental disaster. The spill size is greatly minimized as quick response is in place (BTC Project, para. 2-10).

A normal detection process to such a project could take a relatively shorter time if all the proper preparedness measurers are in place. This can be summarized as shown below:

Activity 5mm hole 50 mm hole Full bore rapture
Time taken in detecting the and confirming the leak A maximum of 2 days or 48 hours One hour One minute
Time taken in shutting down the pumps Ten minutes Ten minutes Ten minutes
Time taken in blocking the affected valves Ten minutes Ten minutes Ten minutes
Total time for detection to the shutdown of the system Total of 48 hours Total of 80 minutes Total of 21 minutes
Time taken in mobilizing the spill response or controlling the leak 24 hours 24 hours 24 to 72 hours taken in mobilizing equipment and the team that will deal with major oil spill.

Figure 1.0 Oil leak detection and estimate of time to be taken in responding to different magnitude events.

Source: BTC Project

The detection is done with the help of system patrols by the design engineers

For the BP case, the spill continued for long before the company could establish a response emergency team for sealing the leaks. The team encountered challenges to seal the leak because of unpreparedness. Therefore, as they continued to make efforts to cap the leaking points within the underground storage tanks, the oil continued to leak and increased the devastating consequences (Stephen, Gold and King, Jr., para. 1-5).

The population in the Gulf of Mexico had requested to be allowed to respond by putting a barrier to prevent the polluted water from reaching other regions. However, they were denied permission to do so by the authorities in the region. The authorities were waiting for a structured response from the responsible bodies. Therefore, it took long before an active response was initiated on the ground. The team that was deployed to contain the leak ascertained that it had to employ unique features of engineering to contain the leak.

The oil was gushing from underneath the water. This was more than one mile underneath the ocean waters. Therefore, experts warned about the situation taking too long before being contained. It required the deployment of massive skills to stop the leak. It was estimated that about five thousand barrels of oil were being gushed into the ocean during the entire time that the leak continued (Farrell, p. 43).

The first response to the oil spill was aimed at containing the short-term impacts. The first response involved the use of underground vehicles that were remotely operated. The vehicles were aimed at closing the blow out preventer valves. This attempt did not attain success. They failed at their initial stages. The second response entailed the use of the use of 125–tone for containing the dome. This had some level of success.

However, its success was limited as it was only effective to contain leakages in the shallow waters. It could not work for deep water spills because of the leakage from gas pipes. When the gas combined with water, it formed methane hydrate leading to the blockage of the dome.

The other attempt was made and it involved the pumping of heavy fluids into the preventer helping to restrict oil flow temporarily before permanent sealing of the leaking points was done. This also failed to materialize. It was evident that the response team was practicing trial and error responses not being sure about the best method (Farrell, p. 43).

The most successful response action employed high level system engineering. The team positioned a riser insertion tube into a wide burst pipe. The tube had a stopper like a washer around it which helped in diverting the flow into the tube. The collected gas was then flared, and the oil was stored on the Drillship discoverer enterprise. A voluminous amount of oil was collected before the removal of the tube. A total of 924 gallons of oil were collected.

However, this was not as more oil was still escaping. Therefore, another oil containment system was installed. This system was directly connected to the “blow out preventer”. This system became more effective in carrying gas to the servicing vessels (Amina, para. 3). However, the amount of oil collected was still less compared to projections.

The containment cap was later replaced with a fitting cap. The new cap had a Flange Transition Spool as well as a 3 Ram Stack. This enabled the team to pump cement and mud into the gushing points of the well. This was a temporary solution that required more actions to stop the possibilities of leakages (Mason, para 2-6).

This emergency response team was prepared and dispatched to the site after the calls for response from various bodies including the media, the public and environmental organizations. The team could only manage to come into the weeks after the leak has begun. By this time, the oil had spread to a relatively larger area and caused wider damage to marine life (Mason, para 2-3).

This response was not done timely, and this is the reason why it took the team and the capping project a longer period than the perceived time. It took approximately one hundred days before the team stopped the oil from leaking. This was contrary to what the company had termed as an easy exercise before they began undertaking it (Mason, para 4-6).

The project succeeded. However, alt of damage had already been done leaving behind major devastations to the marine life and the population. It was evident that the company was not ready to handle a disaster of such a huge magnitude. For instance, they tried to make use of equipment that are used is shallow spills to this case. The equipment that is being referred to here is the steel containment dome that goes for only forty feet. Moreover, this equipment was to be shipped from far (Farrell, p. 43).

Containing the spilt oil

The Deep-water horizon oil spill was characterized by two major response projects. These were the detection and buffing or sealing of the leaking wells. The second response was cleaning up the ocean. The first response projects were crucial and were deemed to involve a lot of technology.

Therefore, systems engineering was a critical part of this response. The second response was going to employ three sub-responses that included containing the water surface, diluting and dispersing the contaminants in areas that were deemed to be less sensitive. The third sub-response was to remove the contaminants from the water (Gelsi, para 2-5).

After the company had managed to stop the leaking oil, it was faced with another hurdle, which was dealing with the oil that had spilt in the ocean. Many oceanographers were warning of the rate at which the spilt oil was spreading to other parts of the ocean thus spreading the impacts across a larger area. This was being aggravated by the ocean loop currents that were directing the slick to Florida and the Atlantic Ocean (Gelsi, para 2-5).

The coast of Louisiana had a large coverage of the oil spill and the more the oil would remain uncontained, the more it would impact negatively on the marine life. Most of the slick was being directed to the Gulf of Mexico where the impact was very severe. At this point in time, many bodies were assessing the effects of the oil spill. Some bodies were struggling to establish the contents of the oil and the effects that these pollutants had on the marine life.

It took long to discover that the explosion at the oil exploration site had resulted in the bursting of oil tanks and that oil was leaking into the sea. This is because the oil was leaking from underground. The leakage was discovered days after the explosion. The amount of oil leaking in the sea could not be easily established.

However, from several reports including the assessment done by the US, it was evident that voluminous amounts of oil were spilling into the sea. The BP estimates were critiqued for being biased and favoring the interests of the company (Cullen, para 1-6).

By the time the oil leak had been stopped, the oil has been sighted in areas far as more than 16 miles away with the entire Gulf of Mexico Island covered with the polluted water. All the surrounding areas like Louisiana had also been affected up to Texas and Mississippi. The scale of the spill was enormous, and this meant it was going to take much time to deal with the situation. The cleanup of the water involved detoxification of the water using chemicals that would help in leaking the carbonic toxicants of oil (Gelsi, para 2-5).

The British Petroleum Company launched the oil containment project. This response project entailed the deployment of containment boom to wide areas. The purpose of the project was to prevent the spilt oil from mashing into the sensitive areas or corralling the oil. The booms were to extend into the deep water horizons.

The amount of booms was extended as the exercise progressed. The boom needed experienced operators who would ensure that the right amount of booms was being discharged. It emerged that the people who were used in conducting this exercise had less expertize and experience that hindered them from effectively discharging the duty (Sidlow, p. 341).

The dispersion of oils dispersants in the sea was launched. The objective of this exercise was to detoxify the water by deactivating the lethal components of oil in the water. The de-toxicants would help in dispersing the chemical pollutants in the ocean thereby minimizing their effects.

The major dispersant chemicals used in the exercise were EC95237A and EC9500A. These dispersal chemicals contained 2-butoxyethanol, propylene glycol and dicotyl Sodium sulfosuccinate. All these elements have chemicals with side effects on the people who get exposed to them while they are still in their active forms. They also have long term effects resulting from exposure to them such as causing cancer (Sidlow, p. 336).

AC-130 Hercules was also used in spreading the dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico which had high deposits of the leaked oil. This was somehow successful, but because of the toxic chemicals that were used in the exercise, the project was termed as unsatisfactorily. The efforts to clean-up the water are still ongoing, and they are expected to continue for a longer time (Sidlow, p. 336).

Lessons learned from the case

Several lessons were learnt by the company regarding this response. Fist is that the organization must have a detailed plan for pipeline leaks. Therefore, the organization should have clearly outlined procedures including training of the response staffs and equipping these staffs with the required equipment. The emergency or disaster preparedness plans must always be active (BTC Project, para. 2-10).


The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an accident that resulted from an exploration mission of BP and other companies. BP had a lot of shares in this mission. The accident occurred resulting in oil leaks under the ocean. Two major responses were critical in averting the effects of the oil spill.

This was the stoppage of the spill and the cleaning up of the water. All these responses needed a lot of technical expertise approach with systems engineering being the major driver of the responses. Both short and long-term response programs were used with each having its success pints and flaws. The company had to derive a lot of preparedness lessons from this disaster.

Works Cited

Amina, Khan. Gulf oil spill: . 2010. Web.

BTC Project. Oil Spill Response Strategy. Web.

Cullen, Elaine. . 2010. Web.

Farrell, Courtney. The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill. Edina, Minn: ABDO Pub, 2011. Print.

Gelsi, Steve. Gulf Coast expands oil spill emergency defenses. 2010. Web.

Hagerty, Curry L. and J.L. Ramseur. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Selected Issues for Congress. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2010. Print.

Landau, Elaine. Oil Spill! Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press, 2011. Print.

Mason, Rowena. . 2010. Web.

Sidlow, Edward. Govt3. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.

Stephen, Power, R. Gold and N. King, Jr. Staffing Levels on Deep-water Horizon Are Questioned. 2010. Web.

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