Disaster for Sale.
The petroleum industry is one of the largest catch-22s of the modern world.
We are dependent on petroleum for many reasons: not only is it the very foundation of the civilized world’s energy consumption, but the extraction and refining of petroleum provides the raw material for chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, plastics, and more. At our current place and time in history, the world runs on oil. You use it. I use it. It’s all around us.
Yet we don’t always make the connection between filling our gas tank at the pump and how that oil gets there in the first place, or where and whom it comes from. Extracting and refining petroleum is a political, environmental, and very precise scientific process that directly and indirectly affects just about everybody on this planet. But when disaster strikes, we are loath to take responsibility for it.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst marine oil spill in history, so naturally it’s now a Hollywood blockbuster complete with a star-studded cast and tons of explosions, premiering in theaters and IMAX on September 30th.
But when you stop to consider what this movie is actually about, it’s no surprise that BP—the operator of the oil rig—is not too happy that the film is happening in the first place.
Here’s how they tried to stop it.
The Deepwater Horizon Explosion
In the late hours of April 20, 2010, a high-pressure methane buildup from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig’s drilling well caused a blowout that exploded, caught fire, and engulfed the entire platform. The fire burned for more than a day until the rig sank on April 22. The open well spilled oil into the Gulf for 87 days and leaked approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil over an area of 2,500-68,000 square miles before being sealed on July 15.
At the time of the disaster, there were 126 crew members on the rig, including seven BP employees, 79 Transocean (the rig operator under contract with BP) employees, and 40 contracted workers. Ironically, several BP and Transocean executives—including BP Vice President of Drilling Patrick O’Bryan-were aboard earlier that day as part of a regular tour of the rig that also served to congratulate the senior staff for seven years without a major incident. 115 people survived and were safely evacuated, 17 of whom sustained injuries. 11 crew members were never seen again following the explosion.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Transocean ranked first in an in-house safety and environmental policies category for three years prior to its merger with GlobalSantaFe in 2007. BP had been a finalist for a national safety award from Minerals Management Service for two years prior to the disaster.
However, there had been warnings from contractors regarding the risk of a blowout preventer failure. The rig also had a history of spills and fires, considered normal in the industry, which led to 18 pollution citations and 16 investigations by the US Coast Guard between 2000 and 2010. In March 2010, the rig had reports of sudden gas releases, the blowout preventer leaking fluid, and repeated drill issues due to high pressure gas.
At the time of the explosion, well operations on the rig were five weeks behind schedule, and workers reported that they were nervous to report any problems or safety concerns for fear of higher-level pushback.
Making a Movie
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You probably remember seeing the news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill for weeks after the explosion, usually made up of images of the devastating effect it had on the Gulf Coast in the form of volunteers raking oil off beaches and cleaning oil-coated animals. But like all major news stories, coverage soon subsided while residents were left to deal with the impact, crew members were scarred with PTSD, and 11 families were left with a missing piece.
In 2011, Summit Entertainment, Participant Media, and Image Nation acquired the film rights to the New York Times article “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours” and got to work on what they described as “a suspenseful and inspiring real-life account of everyday people whose values are tested in the face of an impending environmental disaster.”
And that’s what Deepwater Horizon intends to do. Like any action movie, it will humanize an enormously disastrous event into the very real, inspired-by-the-true story of the crew that worked aboard and died on the oil rig, starring Mark Wahlberg as rig electrician and hero Mike Williams opposite John Malkovich as Donald Vidrine, BP’s top official on the rig.
David Barstow, one of the authors of the original New York Times article, said of the movie, “There’s no question this was a huge environmental catastrophe but in the midst of this is also an incredible human disaster.”
And you can bet that BP wasn’t happy about that.