A litany of blunders and oversights in “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes”

Jess Reid, “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes” (2021)

An investigation into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico near the US state of Louisiana in April 2010, that killed 11 workers and created a massive environmental catastrophe in the Gulf, this documentary manages to be fairly well researched yet easy for its target general public audience to follow. Concentrating on the major errors behind the oil rig explosion, starting with aspects of the culture of BP that emphasised the pressure of time and budget over-runs over safety issues, to mistakes and fateful decisions made by engineers on the oil rig, to underestimating the enormous size of the oil spill and the lack of proper plans to cap the well and to clean up the oil spill, the film draws out what it considers to be the major blunders behind the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and explains how they contributed to the accident. A number of experts including former US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu who served in the first Obama administration add their perspectives to each of the issues raised. Their points are illustrated with fairly simple technical animations and archived film of the explosion and the environmental and economic disaster it caused.

Although very detailed, the film does not do enough to show how the various mistakes it identifies are linked and reflect a corporate culture in the oil industry obsessed with making profits and taking unnecessary risks, especially in a highly risky and dangerous activity such as deep-water oil drilling. In such an industry, the pressure on keeping within time and budget limits can encourage people to take short cuts, to overlook or compromise on safety issues, to conform rather than speak out or express misgivings, and downplay problems or the scale of problems when they occur. Disaster and contingency planning is given short shrift and when a disaster does occur, the corporation resorts to a quick technical fix to disperse the problem to make itself look good for the government, the media, the public and (most of all) its shareholders and investors.

The film fails to pound the US government for its weak regulation of the oil industry and its revolving door personnel policy in which oil industry executives take up positions in the US Department of Energy, loosen regulations on their former employers and then later return to the industry with a change of government. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the film comes near its end when the government fails to punish BP in proportion to the scale of the explosion and the damage it caused to marine environments and the livelihoods of communities and the industries around the Gulf that rely on viable marine environments and ecosystems there. The consequences of the oil rig disaster and of the use of Corexit dispersant to disperse the oil spill on the health of the people who worked on the rig and in the affected environments were and still are considerable. The experts interviewed in the film agree that many of the mistakes and blunders identified have not been properly dealt with and could lead to another major deep-water oil rig explosion.

The film serves as a good introduction to a major human-made disaster that is still generating long-term environmental, economic and human costs in the Gulf. Viewers wanting more information will need to do their own research but at least they will have a handy foundation to work from.