Case #1945.0

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Responding to the Crisis in the Gulf of Mexico

Publication Date: April 13, 2017
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On April 20, 2010 an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana. BP was using the Deepwater Horizon to drill an “ultra-deep” offshore well. The explosion was the result of a "blowout" of the wellhead at the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, 5,000 feet beneath the drilling rig. BP was unable to cap the leaking well for nearly 3 months while oil spilled out of the wellhead at a rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day. By late May, thick crude was fouling Louisiana, Alabama and Florida coastal marshes and beaches. Tourism revenues fell and thousands of miles of fishing grounds were closed. BP was finally able to seal the well (temporarily) on July 14 and then permanently seal the well in September. By that time, an estimated 4.9 million barrels (207 million gallons) of oil had been spilled and nearly 700 miles of coastline had been oiled. Years of damage assessments, restoration projects, claims and lawsuits lay ahead.

This case is designed for use in classroom discussions that analyze and dissect the problem and the actions taken. The oil spill disaster and response is analyzed in terms of: (1) situational awareness (cognitive biases in identifying and understanding the magnitude and ramifications of disasters), (2) the concept of “responsible party” and liability in environmental law, (3) the novelty and size of disasters and the scalability of response efforts, (4) the response structure used to manage oil spills, (5) the role of government vs. the private sector “responsible party” in managing the cleanup of environmental accidents, (6) the tensions between local, state and federal governments in managing a crisis, (7) leadership during crisis, (8) disasters as political events, (9) the challenges of managing public perception and expectations during a crisis, (10) the role of public opinion in the shaping of responses to disasters, and (11) the role of the media in shaping the “narrative” of disasters.

Learning Objective:
This is a general purpose case meant to be taught in a variety of academic disciplines. It is designed as a retrospective or "cadaver" case that looks back at the efforts to contain, cap and cleanup the oil spill. It examines the unfolding of the disaster and the way it grew over time as (1) a large environmental disaster, (2) a large regional economic disaster, (3) a political event, and (4) a media event/story that became part of the national public consciousness (a public opinion event).   

Other Details

Case Author:
Jennifer Weeks
Faculty Lead:
Doug Ahlers
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States