BP Gulf Spill, Five Years Later: Where Did the Oil Go?

A new animated video written and illustrated by NRDC's "science scribe" Perrin R. Ireland attempts to find the answer to a question about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that still lingers five years later: Where did all the oil go?


The Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers and dumped millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf. By the time the well was capped 87 days later, it had spewed some 4.9 million barrels (210 million gallons) of oil.

"The disaster caused widespread, enduring and continuing damage to one of the richest marine environments in the world," said NRDC executive director Peter Lehner in an email. "Over 1,000 sea turtles were found dead, with tens of thousands more exposed to oil. Nearly 1,200 dolphins died—the worst dolphin die-off ever recorded in the Gulf. And one million seabirds were wiped out, including 12 percent of the brown pelican population alone."

Counting dead wildlife is relatively straightforward. Understanding the true magnitude of the environmental damage is something more elusive—and will take much more time to figure out.

"When people try to balance their checkbook it's easy to account for known quantities, but if you can't see a line item like oil at the bottom of the ocean floor or someplace else. It's difficult to balance the books for where it went and how much went where," said Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, whose scientists were among the first to arrive at the BP disaster.

"It's very difficult to do reputable, replicable science under crisis conditions," said Michael J. Blum, the director of the Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University, adding, "There are still questions about the rates of recovery of salt marshes that were oiled during the spill."

Though the well is capped, there have been reports that it continues to leak.

"Coastal Gulf communities still face far-reaching environmental and economic challenges, and will for years, even decades, to come," said Lehner.

"What's more, the fossil fuel industry continues to put workers, waters and wildlife at grave risk in the Gulf at a time when oil and gas companies want to expand drilling in Arctic and Atlantic waters along the Eastern Seaboard—and the Obama administration has proposed allowing them to do so."

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