Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill


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In figure a, a satellite image is shown with an inset pointing out the Gulf Coast of the southern United States. In figure b, a photo of a plane is shown spraying over water contaminated with oil. In figure c, a molecule composed of 6 black carbon atoms, 2 red oxygen atoms, and 14 white hydrogen atoms is shown.
Figure 1. (a) This NASA satellite image shows the oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill. (b) A US Air Force plane sprays Corexit, a dispersant. (c) The molecular structure of 2-butoxyethanol is shown. (credit a: modification of work by “NASA, FT2,”/Wikimedia Commons; credit b: modification of work by “NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team”/Wikimedia Commons)

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico near Mississippi began the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. In the 87 days following the blowout, an estimated 4.9 million barrels (210 million gallons) of oil flowed from the ruptured well 5000 feet below the water’s surface. The well was finally declared sealed on September 19, 2010.

Crude oil is immiscible with and less dense than water, so the spilled oil rose to the surface of the water. Floating booms, skimmer ships, and controlled burns were used to remove oil from the water’s surface in an attempt to protect beaches and wetlands along the Gulf coast. In addition to removal of the oil, attempts were also made to lessen its environmental impact by rendering it “soluble” (in the loose sense of the term) and thus allowing it to be diluted to hopefully less harmful levels by the vast volume of ocean water. This approach used 1.84 million gallons of the oil dispersant Corexit 9527, most of which was injected underwater at the site of the leak, with small amounts being sprayed on top of the spill. Corexit 9527 contains 2-butoxyethanol (C6H14O2), an amphiphilic molecule whose polar and nonpolar ends are useful for emulsifying oil into small droplets, increasing the surface area of the oil and making it more available to marine bacteria for digestion (Figure 1). While this approach avoids many of the immediate hazards that bulk oil poses to marine and coastal ecosystems, it introduces the possibility of long-term effects resulting from the introduction of the complex and potential toxic components of petroleum into the ocean’s food chain. A number of organizations are involved in monitoring the extended impact of this oil spill, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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