The BP Oil Spill

BP has been familiar with disasters in its long history, particularly in the United States. On March 23, 2005 BP’s Texas City Refinery caught fire and exploded killing 15 crew members. After the incident BP was the subject of lawsuits from the victims’ families and was charged with criminal and environmental violations (Reuters). Following that crisis BP has tried to differentiate itself by displaying greater environmental awareness. They continually tried to promote environmentally friendly activities such as promoting renewable energy. BP was among a pioneer in companies that published annual sustainability report to its stakeholders . While BP was on board with environmental change, that did not stop crises from happening, especially in 2010.

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According to Sellnow, Seeger, and Ulmer a crisis is a “specific and nonroutine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty that create high levels of uncertainty and simultaneously present an organization with both opportunities and threats” (Ulmer, Sellnow, Seeger 7). The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was one of the worst crises to strike the United States. The oil spill was the largest in history and it broke onto the scene on April 20, 2010 after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, a rig located 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The Deepwater Horizon rig was owned and operated by an off shore company named Transocean and leased by BP. The rig itself sat right on top of the Macondo oil prospect in the Mississippi Canyon and the oil well was located about 5,000 feet below the surface. On April 20th a tremendous amount of natural gas blasted through the concrete surface that was created by another manufacturer, named Halilburton, in order to seal the well for future drillers. In hindsight, another incident occurred on a rig in 2008 where the same concrete cores were unable to withstand the pressure since they were created with concrete and nitrogen gas. This mixture caused ill effects on the core itself. In other words, BP didn’t learn from its past mistakes in order to make drilling safer for its employees.

Once the natural gas made its way up the rig’s riser to the platform, it created a huge explosion which killed 11 workers and severely injured 17. The rig withstood the explosion for two days in a blazing fire and then capsized on and sank into the ocean on April 22nd, destroying the riser. The riser is where mud is poured to counteract the pressure of oil and natural gas. It’s like a large plug and without it the well is free to release a matter of unwanted materials into the ocean. After that, the oil began to flow into gulf of Mexico. While many people including BP estimated that the amount of oil flowing out of the well was around 1,000 barrels a day, they were way off. The US government thought it was more than 60,000, which was much more on par with the gravity of the disaster. There was clearly a disconnect between the two organizations about how much oil was actually leaking.

Although oil was leaking headstrong into the Gulf of Mexico, BP attempted to activate the rig’s blowout preventer in order to close the channel that the oil was coming from. However, the blowout preventer did not work due to a malfunction. A year later, a forensic analysis showed that the blowout preventer, or two blades designed through the pipe carrying the oil, could not cut the pipe because it was bent due to all of the pressure from the oil and natural gas.

A few months after the spill, in May 2010, a containment dome was attempted to be put on the leak. While this was all well and good, the maneuver was thwarted by gas pressure, formed by the natural reaction between gas and cold water. In early June an attempt stop the flow of oil again was used with something called a “top kill.” In that case mud was pumped into well and a large cap was put on top of it. This maneuver helped to stop some of the flow of oil and BP was able to siphon between 15,000 and 25,000 barrels per day out of the well to be sold. While taking oil out of the well was good, it was still leaking and had to be stopped.

The following month the cap was removed so that a more permanent piece of equipment could be placed on top of the well. Although the leak had slowed significantly a government commissioned panel of scientists estimated that 4,900,000 barrels worth of oil had leaked into the gulf and only 800,000 had been captured. On August 3rd a “static kill” was scheduled for the well and it was a large step in permanently sealing the leak. The static kill led way for a “bottom kill” which entailed putting cement through a relief well that paralleled the original well. The parallel wells were constructed in May and finished in September. The bottom kill successfully closed the well on September 17th but that was just the beginning of the crisis for BP.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill consequently follows image repair theory. An image refers to how an organization is perceived by its stakeholders and the public. The theory also states that a company must be held responsible for its wrongdoings, no matter how big or small (Ulmer, Sellnow, Seeger 2018). BP followed many of the strategies related to image repair but did not successfully garner a positive public response due to the actions of its CEO. One of the most important aspects of image repair theory is denial. Over the course of the crisis BP was keen on not assuming blame, but that did not sit well with the general public and those who were directly affected by the crisis.

While oil was flowing in the Gulf Mexico BP was having trouble handling the prospect of a public relations disaster in their offices. BP lacked leadership from the top down and was unable to fully admit that the problem was much bigger than they originally projected. They also did not have the foresight to reassure the public that they were in complete control of the situation. Originally BP was able to acknowledge the problem, but they did so very slowly. They considerably underestimated the magnitude of spill by claiming that they were “out of the loop” (Webb). The company also failed to acknowledge those who were affected by the spill itself, the families of those who were killed and the livelihood of others whose lives were changed by the spill. Furthermore, senior management dug itself a really big credibility hole that attracted a ton of outrage from the public.

The CEO is the public face of the company and they need to know how to deal with the public relations ramifications of a crisis. The CEO of BP failed to make the situation better, instead he just made it a lot worse with terrible comments. Tony Hayward, the CEO, attempted to shift blame away from BP onto Transocean. Transocean is a US based company who owned the rig, therefore Hayward thought that it was their issue (Webb). He even stated that, ”This was not our accident … This was not our drilling rig … This was Transcocean’s rig. Their systems. Their people. Their equipment” (Webb). In other words, BP was claiming that this incident was not their fault. BP was in denial, therefore not assuming blame for their actions in gulf. A better response would have been to own up to their faults. BP, Transocean, and Halliburton all began to point fingers at one another, continually making the situation worse and worse.

During the week of April 21-26 all BP press releases mentioned some in some aspect that BP and Transocean equally shared the blame for the oil spill (Cherry, Sneirson, Judd 1025). After April 29, Transocean is only mentioned in passing and not as a partner to the incident. From that point forward BP was solely pursuing a conclusion to the crisis as a whole, not assuming blame. A few weeks later in May 2010, BP gave out its own findings to the public and released yet another statement. In this statement Hayward said: “A number of companies are involved, including BP, and its simply too early – and not up to us – to say who is at fault” (Webb). However, during that same time BP was already trying to cover up the leak that they weren’t taking responsibility for.

BP also had a large social media response to the crisis on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages. The company focused on giving information out to the public and letting them know what they were doing to fix the spill. This corrective action was meant to show that BP was on top of the situation and garner a positive response from the public.

Over that same time period Tony Hayward had an interview with the Guardian to address the oil spill. One of the biggest takeaways from the interview is that Hayward explained that the Gulf of Mexico was a relatively small space compared to a much larger ocean. He flat out said that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume” (Webb). While that response did not sit well with the general public, oil was continually flowing out of the unclosed well. BP was clearly denying the fact that the oil had spilled out of their well and they were not taking responsibility for their actions.

Although the disaster continued to grow by the day, Hayward promised that BP would fix it, he just had no idea when. To make matters worse, Hayward was asked if his job was under threat and he responded by saying that “I don’t at the moment. That of course may change. I will be judged by the nature of the response” (Webb). So far BP’s response to the crisis have been clinical at best. Hayward would not admit blame for the incident and he is continually trying to shift the blame away from his company onto others. Towards the end of the interview Hayward explained that it was unwise to speculate about the direct cause of the accident. He also admitted that BP had made a lot of mistakes in the oil spills early going. He initially refused to reimburse fisherman who were unable to produce their normal poundage on a daily basis (Webb). He also said that BP had made a mistake when singing up fisherman for the relief effort. They initially were required to sign certain documents to limiting their receipt of any future damages from BP. While Haywards initial response to the crisis was not what BP had hoped for, things were not going to get much better.

BP’s response to the crisis was a textbook example of how to not to do crisis management. BP did not shoulder the blame for the incident and tried to put it unto other large companies that were also involved in the creation and running of the rig. They continually denied any wrongdoing in the early going and that hurt them in the end. On top of the disastrous Guardian interview Hayward continued to make insensitive remarks to the public like: “There’s no one who wants this thing to end more than I do. You know I’d like my life back” (Webb). He also explained that the environmental damage from the spill would be modest at best. Hayward even took a vacation on a yacht during the crisis less than two days after getting interrogated by a US congressional committee on the oil spill. On top of that. BP tried to control the narrative of the situation by focusing on a solution for the problem, not assuming blame. The news and solutions were of a higher priority in order to shift the focus away from the political repercussions of the crisis. of the Although the majority of the companies rigs are located near the US, Americans consider it a foreign company.

In June 2010 BP decided to run a multi-million dollar TV spot where Hayward explained that he would to everything to make the situation right and restore the coastline to its original state. Barack Obama responded to his claims by saying that Hayward should’ve put the money from the advertisements into cleaning up the oil. Haywards original statement in the advertisement went against BP’s own guidelines on crisis response, which was filed with the US government a year before the spill occurred. The guideline said that “no statement shall be made containing any of the following: promises that property, ecology or anything else will be restored to normal.”

BP also bought online pop up advertisements with Yahoo that were meant to steer users towards information about the spill, not away from it. However, many people thought that the maneuver was just to steer people away from bad press from BP. The advertisements did contain information about the crisis and they were meant to garner a positive response (Cherry, Sneirson, Judd 1025). While advertisements were a way to shift the public eye away from the blight of the crisis the only way to truly stop the crisis was to plug the hole (Korte 6). It would take nearly five months after the spill for the oil well to be declared dead. BP had a total lack of transparency through the crisis and that led to a hefty aftermath.

In 2015 BP attempted to convince people that the Gulf of Mexico was going to heal itself. BP even went as far as releasing a report that highlighted the gulf’s resilience as well as areas where it was making a rapid recovery. However, after five years there is still uncertainty by how much the gulf has actually recovered. In 2016 BP issued its final statement with regards to the spill, which is now the largest in US history. The total cost of the spill was $6.16 billion dollars and under the civil settlements five states and local governments will receive payments for the next dozen years. Until this day, BP is still trying to settle claims with business owners that were hurt by the oil spill.

BP could’ve handled its crisis response much better and the use of denial and evasion of responsibility hurt them greatly in the long run. These strategies made the company look dishonest and unperturbed by the disaster as a whole. If BP had actually took ownership for the crisis the public’s response would have been much better. Instead of being looked at like a multi-billion dollar organization that has tried to create an environmentally friendly workspace BP was seen as an organization that did not care about the environment after the crisis. Its hard to call their crisis response successful by any means. BP acted on impulse rather than following directions from its own crisis department. BP also needed a clear concise plan during the crisis in order to handle it more effectively. More specifically, they needed to take significant measures to stop the oil from flowing instead of waiting 84 days. In other words, picking the right responses for the right times would’ve helped BP immensely.  

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The BP Oil Spill. (2021, Apr 05). Retrieved December 3, 2022 , from

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