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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

At the front-line of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Southampton Geology graduate David White (2000) is a Response Specialist / Senior Consultant with Oil Spill Response Limited, the world’s largest oil spill response organisation. David offers his perspective on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the containment efforts.

On the evening of 20 April 2010, 80 kilometres southeast from the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, hydrocarbons escaped from the Macondo well onto the Deepwater Horizon rig resulting in an explosion and fire with the tragic loss of 11 lives. The fire continued for 36 hours until the rig sank, however hydrocarbons continued to flow from the reservoir for 87 days resulting in one of the most significant oil spill events in global history. US Government estimations suggest that a total of 4.9 million barrels were released. The resulting response to the incident involved numerous organisations from both the United States and internationally from over 16 countries. One such organisation that became heavily involved was Oil Spill Response Limited; an organisation based in Southampton that has close ties with the University of Southampton.

Owned by the global oil industry and primarily based in Southampton, Bahrain and Singapore, Oil Spill Response has stockpiles of specialist cleanup equipment and highly trained personnel that are available for mobilising to an incident anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The organisation also operates two Hercules aircraft that can have spray systems fitted which enable large scale application of dispersant to marine oil spills. Smaller aircraft are also on standby covering the North Sea and West Africa, each of which offer surveillance and dispersant application capabilities. Other related services are also offered to the industry including oil spill training, equipment hire and consultancy. With the largest base being in Southampton, close ties have naturally developed with the University most visibly with a number of graduates working, or having worked for the organisation. Beyond this, Oil Spill Response has hosted research projects, supported career fairs and lectured on courses, and also provides a cash prize for the best project on the Environmental Science degree course.

The initial call from BP was for Oil Spill Response to mobilise half of its global stockpile of containment booms and other specialist equipment to the Gulf of Mexico. Both the Southampton and Singapore stockpiles were utilised, with over 2000m of offshore boom, 8000m of shoreline boom and 200 anchor sets being mobilised. This equated to 70 tonnes of equipment from Southampton and 41 tonnes from Singapore. In order to transport all of this equipment to the United States, two 747 freight aircraft were chartered, one from the UK and one from Singapore. In addition to this equipment, response personnel were requested by BP and later the UK-based Oil Spill Response Hercules aircraft along with a fitted aerial dispersant spray system.

Oil Spill Response personnel were actively involved in a number of areas within the overall response; being based in Command Centres providing technical advice, operating the organisation’s Hercules aerial spray system, assisting in shoreline cleanup activities and working offshore. University of Southampton graduates rotated through practically all these positions. The graduates who currently work for the organisation and attended the response cover a range of course disciplines, including Geology, Oceanography, Environmental Science, Marine Biology, Geography and Coastal Engineering.

The Oil Spill Response Hercules was part of a fleet of aircraft that were coordinated to work offshore, applying dispersant to help break up and disperse the oil into the water column so that it can be broken down by marine organisms. At the peak of aerial operations, 127 surveillance aircraft and 12 dispersant spraying aircraft were being coordinated in the response.

Offshore, Oil Spill Response personnel worked on a number of supply vessels involved in dispersant operations. This included being the lead for applying dispersant at ‘The Source’; the location where the Deepwater Horizon rig was located, and where well control activities were being undertaken. At the height of the incident, the spray operations at ‘The Source’ were on a 24-hour-a-day basis, with the aim to quicken the break-up and dispersion of oil, thus limiting the build up of any hazardous gases that may have posed a risk to those working in the area.

OSRL Hercules and Vessel (Southampton Water)
Photo: Copyright BP

Another offshore operation where Oil Spill Response was heavily involved was the use of oceanographic equipment (fluorometers, a particle size analyser, a water quality meters, and sediment and water sampling apparatus) to monitor the efficacy of the dispersant operations, and to take samples and readings once these operations ceased. When oil slicks were present offshore, this operation focussed on collecting pre- and post-spray samples and data, for both vessel and aerial dispersant applications. Once the flow of hydrocarbons from the well had been stopped and no more oil was at sea, water column data was recorded along with taking sediment and water samples, with the aim to collect data that could be analysed to determine the presence of any dispersed oil.

With the oil impacting the shorelines, Oil Spill Response staff worked with local Command Centres in all affected States (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) to advise cleanup crews on how to employ response techniques to maximise the effectiveness without causing any further damage to the environment. This role was also integral to ensuring good communications between the field, local Command Centres and the main Command Centres.

Now, Oil Spill Response's presence in the Deepwater Horizon response has come to an end, with roles being handed over to local contractors as the activities move from an emergency phase towards a longer term restorative project. In terms of the amount of equipment and number of personnel mobilised by Oil Spill Response, the Deepwater Horizon incident was the largest to which the organisation has ever responded. Despite this draw on resources, the organisation still met its obligations to the global oil industry by being ready to respond to any other incidents that may have occurred. This was tested on several occasions during 2010 where the organisation mounted responses to other simultaneously occurring oil spills in various locations, all with their own diverse challenges and needs; North Sea, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore to name but a few.

David White graduated from the University of Southampton in 2000 with a degree in Geology. Following a period of travelling and undertaking a Master's degree in Marine Resource Development and Protection at Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh, David joined Oil Spill Response and has worked for them for over 9 years. Further information about the organisation can be found at

David White, Gulf of Mexico
Photo: Copyright BP
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