On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed eleven people working on the platform and spilled an estimated 53,000 barrels of oil per day. By July 15, when the leak was stopped by capping the wellhead it is estimated that about 185 million gallons of crude oil had been released into the Gulf of Mexico.
While the well was still spilling oil, a new class was designed to provide Penn State students the opportunity to understand what likely happened on the Deepwater Horizon and to be informed about the impact of a spill like this on the Gulf of Mexico. The class lectures included information about the geology of the Gulf of Mexico, the formation of petroleum, oil exploration, deep-water drilling and well-head engineering. We also studied the dynamic processes of the spill including the oceanography of the Gulf of Mexico, the dispersal of oil, its reaction with dispersants, its breakdown by microbes, its distribution onshore, wetlands and marine systems, how they function, and how oil affects plants, water, sediment and wildlife within them. The course also included attention to the human dimensions of the spill, in particular the ethical, legal, and political issues surrounding the disaster.
One of the capstones of the class was a trip to the Gulf of Mexico where we had the opportunity to learn “in the field” from resident experts. The comments to this post are our reflections on what we learned.