BP Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico

by Kevin Adams

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill of 2010, also commonly called the BP Oil Spill, is the largest accidental oil spill in history, with over 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over a span of 87 days[1]. The disaster took place on April 20th, about 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, and resulted in 17 injuries, 11 deaths, and numerous environmental, economic, and social impacts on the region[2]. This paper analyzes these impacts on the region, particularly those placed upon marginalized groups such as Southeast Asian and African American fishermen, and concludes that simple environmentally just practices such as communicating in proper languages were not performed to assist these groups in the aftermath of the spill.

Bp oil spill

Efforts to clean up the sinking rig immediately following the spill failed[3]

Oil Network and Extraction

Dating back to the early 20th century, oil has been a particularly important fuel for transportation in the United States, and being able to extract large amounts of oil from reserves has had political and economic ramifications. Notable energy scholar Gavin Bridge has discussed the political effects of having oil reserves by saying how those who live around an oil patch know how land “ceases to be a part of national space and becomes instead a series of miniature corporate states, a modern mirror of feudal fiefdoms, with the corporate concession holder as sovereign[4].”

As is the case with many resources, once the easiest reserves to mine have been exhausted, more risky techniques of extraction are used, and in the case of the BP Oil Spill, it was the exploding of an offshore drilling rig that triggered the disaster.

Offshore Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico Facts:

  1. Became popular during the second half of the 20th century, as domestic demand for oil increased[5]
  2. Gulf of Mexico soon became the single largest oil producing region in the United States, with one-third of crude oil production and over 40% of refining capacities coming from the Gulf[6]
  3. Estimates of total fixed capital in Gulf oil industry: $2 trillion[7]
  4. 400,000 people are employed in the oil network that exists in the gulf, comprising of 839 mobile rigs[8]

BP Oil Spill and its Effects

The explosion occurred on the Deepwater Horizon rig when a surge of high-pressure methane gas broke through a recently installed concrete core and rose into the drilling rig, where it ultimately ignited and sunk the rig. With nothing to block the exposed well, oil gushed into the Gulf, with estimates by the U.S. government stating that the flow peaked at over 60,000 barrels lost per day[9]. The well was finally declared permanently closed on September 19th, 2010[10].

Environmental Effects:

  • Gulf ecosystem represented 25% of total commercial fishing revenue in the U.S. prior to the spill[11]
  • Studies showed mutated fish, shrimp lacking eye sockets, and increased levels of carcinogens (up to 40x normal amounts) all as a result of the oil spread[12]
  • Many small fishing villages that existed along the coast disappeared, as they saw less than half as many customers as they had seen in the past[13]

PelicanAn oil-covered pelican (Riedel, 2010)

Analysis of Marginalized Groups

There has been surprisingly little literature written on the marginalized groups that bore the burden of this externality the most, and whether they deserved to from an environmental justice standpoint. An “energy just” world as one that “promotes happiness, welfare, freedom, equity, and due process for both consumers and producers[15].” In the case of this oil spill, BP certainly bore some of the burden of the externality, as the company was badly damaged from both a public image standpoint and from the $54 billion that they had to pay in claims, cleanup efforts, fines, and victim compensation[16]. However, what has gone relatively unnoticed and under reported is the brunt of the burden that already marginalized groups such as African-American and South East Asians working in the fishing and seafood processing industry faced, as their business and work opportunities deteriorated following the blowout on the Deepwater rig.

Southeast Asian Fishermen Facts:

  • 40,000 lived in the Gulf region, with 20% working in the seafood processing industry(including fishing)[17]
  • Made up 1/3 of 13,000 registered fishing vessels in Gulf[18]
  • 80% negatively impacted by spill[19]

Gulf Fishing Industry

Importance of the fishing industry to the Gulf region (Kuang, 2010)

For example, the community of Vietnamese fishermen relies heavily on oysters for their income, with oysters typically making up to 85% of a fisher’s income. Following the spill state officials along the Gulf Coast placed heavy restrictions on oyster harvesting, and in 2015 ended the season early in March, with a 10-sack daily limit[21]. This is part of a recurring theme of state officials or leaders of giant corporations imposing decisions on these minorities, who lack a voice in these discussions and were not given a chance to stick up for themselves.Many of the talented Southeast Asian and African American fishermen who settled in the Gulf region had already been victims of a natural disaster and were forced to relocate and start over because of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf region in 2005. First hand accounts of the struggles that these minority groups faced include the testimony of Byron Encalade, the African American who was President of the Louisiana Oysters Association, who was quoted during the crisis as saying, “We thought 2010 was the year to finally recover from Hurricane Katrina.  We have invested money in our boats and company infrastructure.  This oil spill has…[been] devastating, but it will be extremely difficult these next few months for fisherman who depended on this livelihood as source of income and also a food source… Once again we find ourselves crippled by a disaster we did not create[22].” It turns out that from the beginning of the disaster, Southeast Asian and African Americans never had a chance.

In the days immediately following the explosion and resulting leakage, many of these fishermen were left uninformed about the happenings around them. Southeast Asian fishermen in particular already faced language barriers on a daily basis, and when the disaster struck, nearly all of the important news was distributed in English, or in the wrong dialects if they were translated[23]. Minority fishermen often lacked necessary information to make informed decisions that would help them down the road, such as filing for claims or signing documents to keep their fishing licenses. Filing for claims, in particular, was a process where the language barriers really played a role in a less than optimal outcome for the fishermen. Class action settlement programs against BP ran in that those who were in severe need of money were offered a one-time payment of $5,000 dollars ($25,000 for businesses) as long as they signed an agreement saying they would not file claims or sue BP down the road[24]. However, due to language barriers, many individuals who were in need of quick money were coerced into signing the documents without understanding the full details that they could not file a claim down the road if they took the “quick pay”[25].

In many ways, these already marginalized fishermen bore the burden of the externality the most, and the fact that basic, low cost policies such as hiring translators that could help them make informed decisions were not put into place is a major failure by both BP and the local, state, and U.S. governments. Also, it is not like these marginalized fishermen could just switch careers, as they did not have the requisite transferrable skills having fished their entire lives. There was a severe lack of job training or placement programs where those impacted could at least attempt to look to work in a different industry until the effects of the spill subsided[26]. Not only fishermen were hit hard, as the cycle of getting the seafood from the water to the dinner table was also negatively impacted, with those in the transportation, processing, and restaurant industries suffering similar income and welfare losses.


Sadly, this has turned into another classic case of government and corporate power suppressing minorities for their own gains. While environmental justice is always the gold standard and is something to strive for, in large environmental disasters not everybody will come out a winner. But far too often it is groups who do not deserve to suffer who bare the brunt of the burden, and in this case new methods of extraction put these marginalized groups at risk without them even knowing. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is proof that challenging extraction environments create large risks, and it is clear that those who have the most at risk and did nothing to contribute to the disaster should at least be allowed a voice at the policy table to fight for themselves as the extraction of resources continues to enter new realms.


  1. Cleveland, C. J. (2010). Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Encyclopedia of the Earth.

  2. Gulf Oil Spill. (2015). Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History.

  3. BP Oil Spill [Photograph]. (2013). Getty Images, CBS News.

  4. Bridge, G. (2009). The hole world: Scales and spaces of extraction. New Geographies 2: 43-48.

  5. Watts, M. (2012). A tale of two gulfs: Life, death, and dispossession along two oil frontiers. American Quarterly 64(3): 437-467.

  6. Watts, 2012: 442.

  7. Watts, 2012: 456.

  8. I. (2016, March 24). Offshore Rig Data.

  9. Brennan, L. C. (2013). Gulf Oil Spill. ABDO Publishing Company.

  10. Corum, J. (2010). Methods That Have Been Tried to Stop the Leaking Oil. New       York Times.

  11. Saundry, P., & Hogan, M. C. (2010, July 26). Gulf of Mexico.

  12. Sahagun, Louis (February 13, 2014). “Toxins released by oil spills send fish hearts into cardiac arrest”. Los Angeles Times.

  13. Smith, M. (2015, April 19). Five Years After BP Disaster, Gulf of Mexico’s Fishing Industry Continues to Struggle.

  14. Riedel, C. (2010). Brown Pelican [Photograph]. Al.com, AP Photo.

  15. Sovacool, B.K. and Dworkin, M.H. 2014. Global Energy Justice: Problems, Principles, and Practices. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

  16. Gilbert, D., & Kent, S. (2015). BP Agrees to Pay $18.7 Billion to Settle Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Claims. Wall Street Journal.

  17. Honda, M., & Cao, A. (2010, August 9). BP oil spill’s impacts on vulnerable minority communities.

  18. Honda, M., & Cao, A.

  19. Honda, M., & Cao, A.

  20. Kuang, C. (2010, May 9). Infographic of the Day: Everything We Know About the BP Spill. Seriously, Everything. Retrieved from Infographic of the Day: Everything We Know About the BP Spill. Seriously, Everything.

  21. Ludwig, M. (2015, April 20). Gulf Fishermen Still Struggling Five Years After the BP Spill.

  22. Liability Issues Surrounding the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster,” US House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, 27 May 2010.

  23. Honda, M., & Cao, A.

  24. Ludwig, 2015.

  25. Ludwig, 2015.

  26. Honda, M., & Cao, A.




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