The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the tip of Louisiana’s Mississippi River delta 12 years ago -- a few minutes before 10 p.m. on April 20, 2010 -- killing 11 rig workers.
Two days later, the burning rig sank, snapping the steel piping connected to the blown out oil well and sending crude flowing unfettered into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. It was the largest offshore spill in U.S. history.
The deadly rig explosion led to an unprecedented federal response, including a six-month deepwater drilling moratorium and a record $4.5 billion in criminal penalties against the oil company, BP.
The Deepwater Horizon was a floating mobile drilling rig owned by Transocean and leased by BP to drill the Macondo oil well. There were 126 people on board and the crew had just finished plugging what they called the “well from hell.” They were weeks behind schedule and millions of dollars overbudget as they prepared to leave to another drilling job.
But the crew made a series of cascading errors, skipping key tests of the well’s cement lining and misinterpreting another test before removing important barriers to the flow of gas and oil gathering inside the well. Unbeknownst to the crew, high-pressure gas and oil had seeped in through the bedrock and breached the cement lining of the well, shot up through a mile-long pipe in the gulf and ignited on the rig floor.
After several failed attempts, response teams from BP and the Coast Guard finally capped the well on July 15, 2010.
A federal court later concluded 134 million gallons of crude spewed into the gulf, more than 12 times the amount spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. The spill coated beaches from Texas to Florida with oil and tar balls, killed hundreds of thousands of marine animals and devastated the region’s tourist economy.
BP reported spending more than $60 billion on fines, compensation for damages and cleanup. The disaster cost the commercial fishing industry $94.7 million to $1.6 billion and anywhere from 740 to 9,315 jobs in the first eight months, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
The company pleaded guilty to 14 criminal counts for its illegal conduct leading to and after the disaster and several BP officials invoked their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination during public investigative hearings. But nobody went to prison. The government only charged the two BP rig bosses with criminal negligence, with one BP pleading guilty to a misdemeanor pollution charge and the other acquitted of manslaughter charges at a trial.