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Gulf Oil Case Study
Recognized as the worst oil spill in U.S. history, The Gulf oil spill that took shape on April 20, 2010 gives us detailed insight into what oil spill catastrophes can encompass. In this case study we will delve into the events that took place, what guidelines were in place at the time, the process that followed, and future risk management to help ensure incidents like this don’t happen in the future.
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About 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig experienced an explosion that killed 11 and began to spew oil and gas into the surrounding ocean for nearly 90 days. Due to the extreme depths (5000+ ft) and frigid temperatures, capping the well was an extremely difficult process. When the well was finally capped an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil had found its way into the Gulf (The Ocean Portal Team, 2014).
At the time of the spill, decades of policy and laws had been set in place should an oil spill occur. As far back as The Clean Water Act of 1972, The Deep Port Act of 1974, and The Outer Continent Shelf Lands Act Amendments of 1978, there have been guidelines and procedures to prevent a spill as well as procedures as to reactions when spills occur (Law Info, 2018). As a result of the Exxon Valdez spill, the oil Pollution Act of 1990 was put in place to ensure proper and efficient cleanup of any oil spills. This policy helped fund cleanups, required companies to create spill plans prior to drilling, assigned responsibility, and raised penalties for spillers.
Because of the depths associated with the BP spill and the difficulty to control a spill, the ecological risks become multiplied. Contamination can reach further, deeper and cover a wider spectrum than any spill prior to this one. This spill contaminated more than 1100 miles of coastline and 68,000 square miles of surface water (Adams, 2015). Marine life took a huge loss as marine mammal fatalities were upwards of 5000, dolphin illness became apparent and thousands of seat turtles washed up on shore.
The ecological impacts greatly affected human resources as shrimp production dropped to all-time lows, oyster and other shellfish production ceased within contaminated areas, and scientists discovered heavy loses of almost every fish species within the area.
Other ecological impacts include deep-sea coral loss, diverse vegetation, nearly 1 million seabird deaths, and dramatic loss of countless bottom feeding organisms found within the 1,200 square miles of deep ocean floor contaminated by the spill.
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The economic impacts of such a spill was coming from three distinct areas. The cleanup costs associated with the spill added up to more than $61 billion (Mufson, 2016). More than $11.5 billion has been paid to victims associated with economic or medical damages. This isn’t including more than $22 billion in losses projected for the tourism industry. Further economical loses project up to $9 billion in lost revenue for the fishing industry alone as well as the loss of countless jobs (Adams, 2015).
These statistics and figures all point to the need for heavily controlled and regulated risk assessments and a continued research and development into improving methods and practices. The economic values are found in the hundreds of billions of dollars associated with the potential hazard of a serious spill. If we consider how each associated species or ecological entity plays a role in the environment around it or even simpler, our economy, we can see the ecological value associated with risk assessment.
If we consider the application of probabilistic risk assessment methods in this case, we can see how uncertainties associated with the environment in this scenario can affect outcomes. Trying to essentially predict all possible outcomes or scenarios is nearly impossible when considering an offshore, deep water oil rig. From weather, Earth crust movement, equipment malfunction, soil erosion, tension, virtually anything is possible (Heflin, 2017). Understanding the probability of any given instance is essential when trying to determine risk.
If we consider the knowledge gained through past oil spills such as the Exxon Valdez incident, we can see a correlation between field studies completed then and risks associated with the BP spill. Due to the experiences associated with past spills, current and future risk assessments can better prepare for spills. The correlation between various hazards and how we control them has proved effective, especially after the incident. In terms of cleanup, past field studies have shown what methods work and others that should be abandoned.
Establishing a value for the ecological components in this case can be difficult. As long as companies are permitted to drill in these environments, there will be the need for improved risk assessments and policy. Tradeoffs have already been made for the sake of development if we consider the countless losses of life and ecological degradation, not to mention the billions of dollars spent to ensure this doesn’t happen again. If we consider learning from our past as a value, we can draw the conclusion that the risk assessment is determined only by the ecological losses associated with events of the past.
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