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Introduction

An oil spill is the release of oil to the environment which may either be intentional or accidental, and it is a form of pollution. Oil spillage on water bodies has adverse effects on marine life. There are diverse aquatic habitats. They differ in terms of their level of sensitivities to the harmful effects of oil contamination, and in their abilities to recover after oil spillage. Oil spillage in aquatic environments results in floating oil on the water bodies, which in turn blocks out sunlight. The food that most of the marine life depends on, such as Phytoplankton and seaweed do not thrive without sunlight. These cause reduced source of food leading to starvation among a large percentage of the marine life.

Large water mammals such as the whales have their blow holes blocked which leads to death. Oil spillage in an aquatic environment does not only affect the life in the water but also the life above the water.  Sea birds that may come into contact with the polluted water may be covered with oil; this inhibits their ability to fly. Also, in an effort to clean their feathers, they may consume the oil which is fatal. In addition, animals with fur and feathers may freeze due to the damage of their protective covers (Fominyen, 2010).

The deep-water spill also known as the Gulf oil spill is identified as the worst oil spill in the United States’ history. By the time deep-water horizon oil rig sank and exploded on April 20, 2010. There had been BP pipe leakage of oil and gas on the floor of the ocean located approximately 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana. An estimate of 4.9 million barrels of oil had leaked into the gulf by July 15, 2010 when the capping of the well was in the process. This was more than 185 million gallons of oil spill (Smithsonian Institution, 2010). The Gulf oil spill had adverse results; hundreds of miles of shoreline covered with oil, thousands of square miles of Gulf waters closed to fishing, and massive deaths of marine life. The contamination caused by this oil spill in the ecosystem may remain unpredictable for years to come.

The Gulf oil spill was three times greater than the Exxon Valdez spill. The Exxon Valdez oil spill had been considered the largest in the history of United States before the Gulf oil spill. The Exxon Valdez spill occurred on March 24, 1989 when tanker Exxon Valdez ruptured its hull thereby spilling around 11 million gallons of crude oil into a productive body of water. The oil spread over vast areas of Prince William Sound of Alaska and to other areas in the months that followed.

The Santa Barbara oil spill was another disaster that happened to have been the largest in the waters of California. It occurred on January 29, 1969 when a Union Co. platform suffered a blow out near the Santa Barbara city in Southern California. Approximately 80, 000 to 100, 000 barrels were released in a period of eleven days. From the assessment of the previously mentioned serious oil spills, it is vivid that the Gulf Oil spill was the worst in terms of extensive effect and volumes of oil spilled into the environment. This research is vital because it shows in depth the nature and effects caused by the Gulf oil spill in comparison to some of other oil spills in the history of the United States.

The Gulf oil spill

Background

The Gulf oil spill and explosion was also known as BP oil spill or Deep-water Horizon oil spill or Macondo blowout.  It occurred on 20th April 2010, and was the largest offshore spill in the United States’ history. The Deep Water Horizon, which was a Transocean deep sea drilling rig, was working for British petroleum on the Macondo prospect in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deep Water Horizon caught fire and burned fiercely for 36 hours. It later sank in the water. The fire was visible from a distance of 35 miles when it was at its height, and the flames were 200-300 feet.  Eleven of the oil rig workers died and several others injured.

Deep Water Horizon was designed by Reading and Bates Falcon and built by Hyundai Heavy Industries shipyard in South Korea. It was built in 2001 and had been designed for effective work in harsh environments. It had 130 berths and could operate in stormy conditions. This advanced technology and the art of the rig set the world’s record for the deepest well drilled. The main reason behind the BP’s efforts in the deep ocean oil exploration was because of increased demand for oil in the United States, and there were limited land based resources to be discovered (Merylynne, 2010). The rig was reported to have been searching for oil deposits at the time of the accident. Workers on board, on the other hand, were capping the newly drilled well in preparation of moving in search of other oil deposits.

According to the reports from companies and workers involved, there were some misunderstanding and disagreements in the capping procedure. In normal circumstances, the capping procedure involves hardening of the two cement plugs that were poured before the drilling mud was removed from the well bore. The importance of the mud was to block sudden bursts of gas or oil. On that fateful day, the engineers on board did not follow the usual procedure; instead, they removed the mud prior to adding the second cement plug and a burst of gas rushed up the pipe resulting in the massive explosion. Oil began to pour out from the well in large amounts ranging from 12,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil each day (Strickland, 2011).

Extent of damages caused

As discussed by Gaskill (2011), the broken pipes channeling oil 1,400 meters from the sea floor caused spillage of 4.9 million barrels of oil with an equal volume of gas in over three months; this was according to reports from the U.S government. It took place at one of the most productive areas in a prolific gulf, near the outflow from the Mississippi river delta, an area that was rich in nutrients. Approximately 1,728 species depended on this area as a site for feeding and reproducing. At the time of the incidence, many of those species were breeding and this exposed the young to toxins from the spill.

The Gulf oil spill caused adverse effects; namely, disruption of the fishing industry in the region, damage to the renewable natural resources, and caused significant deaths of fish and wildlife. The toxics from the oil affected both the shallow and deep ecosystems, and as per comments by Larry McKinney, director of Texas A&M University Harte Research Institute for Gulf Mexico Studies, the effects would last for decades. Among the dead animals collected were 6, 104 birds, 609 sea turtles and 100 marine mammals; this was just a few of the total fatalities.

The fatality rate was more than the numbers mentioned above  because, as scientists explained, most of the animals that die sink or are eaten and only a small percentage are washed ashore. Reports as of March 2, 2010, indicated that US$ 2.5 billion were lost by fin fish industries and Louisiana shellfish, and US$3 billion lost by the tourism industry. The loss of marine life including the rare and officially endangered species was incalculable.

Clean up process

During the recovery process, the United States government estimated 1.24 barrels of oil skimmed from the surface and from the damaged pipes. 1.2 million barrels estimated to have dissolved or evaporated; an estimate of 1.1 million barrels either washed to the shores and beaches or sank to the bottom; 630, 000 barrels dispersed naturally and an estimate of 770, 000 barrels chemically broken down into small droplets by dispersants. Though, the main motive behind the cleanup was beneficial, it had some negative effects such as damaging vegetation, making the soil compact and washing the oil into sediments where its rate of degrading reduced.

Containing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico from Deep Water Horizon was, however, a major problem with no effective methods attained. The high winds and high waves had been a significant contribution to the failure in the possible methods used. Environment burning would not work because of high winds nor could the skimmers that suck the oil from surfaces. The winds took part in driving the oil slick to creeks and inlets at the coastline. Reduced rate of the winds was the only way the containment methods would work effectively.

According to Terry Curry, who worked at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona as a biologist, the full environmental consequences caused by the Gulf oil spill will never be fully known, and the cleanup process will never be complete. I also support this comment because several studies showed that significant oil quantities remained at about 1,100 meters depth and some on the sea floor. In almost a year after the accident, there were still traces of oil in the marshes, in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay.

Exxon Valdez oil spill

Background

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground and spilled 250, 000 barrels of oil equivalent to an estimate of 10 million gallons into Prince William Sound of Alaska (Wells, Butler, & Hughes, 1995). The Exxon Valdez was en route from Valdez to Los Angeles in California. As it was trying to avoid the ice as, apparently, it was not in the normal shipping lanes, it damaged its hull resulting to the spillage of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. The Exxon Valdez oil spill covered 1,100 miles of Alaska’s coastline making it one of the largest oil spills in the United States. The response to this incidence took quite some time with the cleanup involving more than 11, 000 people, 1,400 vessels and 85 aircrafts.

Extent of damage caused

The oil that spilled from Exxon Valdez took only 6 hours to be released after the grounding of the ship. Most of the oil concentrated in a large patch near Bligh Island; this was a few days after the spillage.  A storm experienced on March 26 in Prince William Sound generated winds which dispersed much of the oil to large areas. The winds also changed the spilt oil into mousse and tar balls. By March 30, 1989, the oil had extended 90 miles from the point where the spillage had taken place with 1,300 miles of the shore line being extremely oiled (Ramseur, 2010).

The pollution caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill affected between 3,700 and 5,600 mammals of 9 different species. 300 of the seals died cause of breathing oil fractions from the water and 2,600 others died as a result of consuming the oil. 36 killer whales had been counted before the spill, and after the accident, 14 of them were already missing. This was between 1989 and 1990. About 71 species of sea birds were affected with the number of deaths totaling between estimates of 250, 000 and 350, 000.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there was a fishing ban issued by the Alaska Governor because of the health concerns. About 4,000 jobs were affected, and lots of money was lost too. Alaska fishing involved 12,000 fishermen, and it was 6 percent of the American market. The earnings from fishing in Alaska had been a total of US$174 million in 1987. The herring fishing season normally opened at the beginning of April, and the pink salmon fishing season opened in June and July bringing in US$ 33 million annually. With the accident, the whole fishing patterns were disrupted, and the profits were lost.

Clean up process

Exxon Company was blamed for its slow response to the cleanup of the disaster while more than 11, 000 of Alaska residents with some employees of Exxon worked with the aim of restoring the environment. Nevertheless, there was an application of dispersants by a private company on March 24, 1989, but because of the insufficient action from waves which was essential in mixing the dispersant with the oil in the water, this process was discontinued.  Burning was also conducted in the early stages of the spill, and it was quite successful because it reduced spilled oil from 113, 400 liters to 1,134 liters. This was, however, stopped because of the unfavorable weather. Even with the use of all this techniques, less oil was recovered. According to the study by NOAA, more than 26 thousand gallons of oil were still in the shorelines as of 2007.

Santa Barbara oil spill

Background

The Santa Barbara oil spill occurred on January 29, 1969 after a Union Oil Co. platform suffered a blow out. The Santa Barbara oil spill was the largest oil spill in the United States by that time. Presently, it is ranked third after the Gulf oil spill of 2010 and Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. It took place in the Santa Barbara channel near Southern California. It is the largest oil spill in the waters of California.

The workers on board had previously drilled a well, and as they were retrieving the pipe so as to replace the drill, the mud became dangerously low, which resulted to a blow out of natural gas. The main purpose of the mud was maintaining pressure. The pressure built up tremendously after the initial capping of the hole.  For eleven days, oil workers strived to cap the rupture, but during that time, an estimate of 80, 000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil were bubbling to the surface, and it spread to an 800 square mile slick with the help of winds and swells. The thick, tar spread with the aid of a tide to beaches from Rincon point to Goleta covering 35 miles of coastline.

Extent of damage caused

There were massive damages caused by the Santa Barbara’s oil spill especially to the marine life and sea birds (Campbell, 2008). The oil blocked the blow hole of dolphins which resulted in lung hemorrhages. Consumption of oil by some of the animals also contributed to the high death rates. Most of the birds that fed on sand creatures moved to other areas, but the diving birds that retrieved nourishment from the water were soaked with tar. Estimates of bird deaths were 3,686 with only 200 grebes surviving in the area from previous estimated numbers ranging from 4000 to 7000.

Economically, all industries that were ocean related experienced negative effects in various ways. All commercial fishing was suspended with the tourism industry suffering quite a significant drop. The damages received by the city of Santa Barbara were $4 million in 1974; commercial fishing losses added up to $1.3 million. In total, the county of Santa Barbara settled $9.5 million.

Clean up process

Workers tried to control the spillage by pumping chemical mud down a 3,500 shaft at a rate of 1,500 barrels an hour. This was then topped by cement plug, but residual gas continued of leak, releasing oil in the months that followed.  Skimmers were used in retrieving oil from the ocean surface. Planes were also used to pour detergents on the tar on the ocean in a bid to break up the slick.

Reasons why the Gulf oil spill was the most Destructive

In comparison to the above mentioned large oil spills ever in the history of United States, the Gulf oil spill was in no doubt the largest and most destructive. This can be depicted from the comparisons based on the volumes of oil released into the environment, disruptions caused to the life depending on the water sources, and the economic effects.

Volumes of oil released

Estimates of 4.9 million barrels were released into the environment in the Gulf oil spill; with approximately 12,000 to 60, 000 barrels said to have leaked every day. This was quite a significant amount as compared to volumes released during the Exxon Valdez and the Santa Barbara spills which were 250,000 barrels and 80, 000 to 100, 000 barrels respectively. From this comparison, it is vivid that the volume of oil released into the environment in the Gulf oil spill was way massive as compared to the other large oil spills in the United States.

Disruptions caused to life depending on the water sources

The Gulf oil spill occurred in the most productive region near the outflow of the Mississippi river; approximately 1,728 species depended solely on this area for feeding and reproduction. Most of these species were adversely affected as a result of the spill. On the other hand, 9 different species of mammals and 71 species of sea birds were affected in the Exxon Valdez Oil spill. The number of species affected in the Santa Barbara oil spill was not specified, but 3,686 birds died. The species affected in the Gulf oil spill totaled to a big number, which shows the extensive effect of this oil spill.

Economic Effects

The Gulf oil spill caused significant economic effects by damaging renewable natural resources and disrupting the fishing industry. There were significant deaths of fish and wildlife. This resulted to losses of $2.5 billion dollars by the fishing industries and loss of $3 billion dollars in the tourism industry. There was a loss of $33 million from salmon fishing as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill as it occurred just before the herring and pink salmon fishing season. Santa Barbara oil spill, on the other hand, resulted to losses that totaled to $95 million which was to be settled by the Santa Barbara County. The economic effects were more extensive in the Gulf oil spill extending to billions of dollars as compared to the other oil spills.

Conclusion

In conclusion, from the information gathered from the experiences of oil spills there is no doubt that oil spills have adverse, negative effects ranging from damage to the environment, increased fatalities and negative economic effects. From the assessment of the incidences mentioned, there have been limited efforts in prevention of oil spills and in finding ways of resolving these issues. In most cases, the effects are still felt with traces of oil still been recovered from the affected areas.  From the comparison and evaluation of the three large oil spills in the history of the United States, Gulf oil spill was the largest in terms of the volumes released, the disruption caused to the life that depended on the affected water source, and extensive economic effects. The Gulf oil spill was also major catastrophe because of the explosion that burnt for 36 hours.

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