What Happened at the Macondo Well?

US Coast Guard
Fireboat response crews battling the blazing remnants of the Deepwater Horizon, the offshore drilling rig owned by Transocean that exploded when BP’s Macondo oil well ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico, April 21, 2010

The anniversary of the largest oil spill in American history passed with little notice this summer. On July 15, 2010, the ruptured BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was finally sealed after gushing oil for nearly three months, but there were few stories to commemorate it a year later, owing in part to the headline-consuming hacking scandal that had broken out at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The occasion might have gone unnoticed even if there had been nothing to nudge it aside, because business-as-usual has returned with surprising speed to the Gulf of Mexico and to America.

A drilling moratorium imposed by President Obama was lifted last fall, tourists are back on the area’s beaches, commercial fishing has resumed, energy consumption is rising across the country, and BP has returned to the Gulf drilling scene—a well it owns was given the first permit after the moratorium was lifted. Tony Hayward, the BP chief executive who was forced to step down in October 2010, largely as a result of the disaster, has gotten his life back quite nicely, raising $2.18 billion earlier this summer for a new investment firm he has set up with the financier Nathaniel Rothschild.

The eleven workers who were killed at the ruptured well, and the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled, are slipping out of memory. The short-term environmental damage was not as catastrophic as feared, and the long-term impact—the toll the oil will take as it moves through the food chain of Gulf marine life—is not yet known. Yet the reports of the past year and anniversary-themed books on the disaster provide a trove of data that reveals how the oil and gas industry is as reckless and unaccountable as the too-big-to-fail banks that brought on the financial crisis of 2008. The BP disaster revealed the same problems—lax government regulation, corporate profits despite the risks, a fawning press—that characterized the financial meltdown. Big banks and big oil have more in common than their size.

When our attention was still fixed on the spill, which we could watch via underwater cameras that showed oil spewing from the seabed, everyone was beating up on BP, which was doing its best to blame Transocean, the company that owned and operated the drilling rig, and Halliburton, which carried out a cementing job so badly that it may have contributed to the disaster. Hayward was bumped out of his job once the crisis passed but it has been difficult to know who was responsible beyond BP, or the extent to which BP itself was responsible, just as it has been difficult to know whether the disaster was an inevitability in the risky offshore business or a…

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