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Case study: Gulf of Mexico oil spill and BP
On 20 April 2010 a deepwater oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
The immediate effect was that it killed 11 people and injured 17 others. Oil leaked at a high rate which is difficult to calculate. Some estimates are around 40,000 barrels a day. The oil spill posed risks to the environment and affected local industry.
The impact this oil spill was depended on which parts of the coastline you look at. It is difficult to measure the effects because of seasonal changes in wildlife.
- The government asked for $20 billion in damages from BP and BP's share price fell.
- Local industries, such as fishing was threatened. There was a ban on fishing in the water.
- Tourism declined.
Environmental worker rescuing an oil-covered pelican
- Plants and animals were completely covered in the oil. Seabirds, sea turtles and dolphins have been found dead.
- Oil that entered wetland areas meant recovery would be slow.
- Fish stocks were harmed, and productivity decreased.
The size of the oil spill was one of the largest America had seen. However because the oil entered warm waters, organisms in the water helped to breakdown the oil. The overall effect may be less than Exxon Valdez Oil spill in 1989 which happened in colder water.
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On April 20, 2010, an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig leased by the oil company BP, set off a blaze that killed 11 crew members. Two days later, it sank about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast and crude oil began gushing out of a broken pipe 5,000 feet below the surface. A month later, after a series of failed attempts to plug the leak, oil had begun to stain the coasts and marshes of Louisiana. The spill appears to be the worst oil disaster in American history: by the most conservative of the government estimates released May 27th, the spill by then had released almost twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez, which spilled about 250,000 barrels of oil into Prince Williams Bay in Alaska in 1989.
— From the Times Topics page on the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
After the April 20 explosion, we posted a basic 6 Q’s About the News on the topic, then followed it up with a science lesson on learning about the Gulf oil leak in the lab.
But with the spill and its effects still growing over a month later, we’ve updated our ideas for taking on one or many aspects of the disaster in the classroom.
First, though, if you don’t yet know about Times Topics pages, the Gulf Oil Spill is a great illustration of what they can do.
You’ll find all Times coverage of the topic, including articles, graphics, video, and photos, here, on one page, along with a regularly-updated summary of events at the top.
Many teachers use Times Topics pages as a substitute for Wikipedia to help students get an overview of a topic quickly, as well as find reliable information for deeper research.
Teacher-Created Projects about The Gulf Oil Spill
Update, December 15, 2010: We’re creating a new category on this page today to represent the work of three teachers we’ve featured in the blog this summer and fall, all of whom have used the oil spill for rich inquiry projects:
Ideas for Civics, History, Geography and Social Studies:
— Track the oil spill on this interactive map, which shows how it has grown since April 22 based on different estimates. It is also a quick way to see a one-line summary of each day’s progress and setbacks around containing the spill. Then, to put the spill into perspective for students, have them use this mapping system to superimpose the current dimensions of the oil stain on their home town (or any other spot they choose).
— To understand what led to this disaster, as well as to both track and predict the long-range repercussions of it, students might create a “cause and effect” chart of their own, or use ours. Comparing this oil spill with the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, previously the worst spill in U.S. history, might help them understand how far-reaching the effects can be. For example, as this slide show shows, 21 years later Alaska is still confronting the financial, emotional and environmental consequences of the wreck.
— “Is It Obama’s Oil Spill Now?” asks the Room for Debate blog. Read what four experts have to say on this subject, as well as President Obama’s comments on his administration’s response, then decide what you think: How well has he handled it so far? What do you think he should do now? Students might write to the president and tell him. Or answer our Student Opinion question: What did you think of Obama’s Oval Office speech on the spill?
— What impact will the oil spill have on energy policy? How will it effect President Obama’s recently-announced plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling? What regulations should be put on the oil industry? Read “Rules, Revolving Doors and the Oil Industry”, also from the Room for Debate blog, to learn about some of these issues.
— Update: Here is a “Fill-In” using the Times Topics page overview on the spill. Students can use their own words or choose from a bank of the words removed to fill in blanks. All the words removed were chosen to help them understand the details and magnitude of the disaster.
Ideas for Journalism:
— During the last two weeks in May every year, the Times Journalism Institute brings students from historically black colleges and universities together with writers, editors, designers and photographers from The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Times Company Regional papers. This year the Institute is in New Orleans, and student journalists are focusing on, among other things, the oil spill and its effects on communities in Louisiana. Watch the video “A Coastal Community Braces for Oil” to see and hear from Louisiana residents, then ask students to imagine creative angles they might take to cover this story if they were in the region.
Ideas for Science and Technology:
— We’ve updated the popular lesson we did when the explosion first occurred, “The Drill on the Spill: Learning About the Gulf Oil Leak in the Lab,” to include the latest news about the spill and containing it.
— Students interested in the effects on wildlife and marshland ecosystems might research past oil spills and the lessons scientists have learned about how to minimize the effects of a spill on wildlife. For example, students might focus on the lasting effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on Prince William Sound. What lessons from this spill apply to the Deepwater Horizon incident? What similarities and differences in land features, climate and wildlife exist between the two sites and how should they taken into consideration? (Update: here is a reading comprehension exercise on the threat to birds, particularly the brown pelican.)
— Briefly watch the streaming video of the oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico. Then, students might create analogies or models to help them better understand the challenges engineers are facing to stop the leak. For example, it might help them to think about more common problems, such as water spraying out of a pipe or hose or air leaking from a tire. Then, contemplate the inaccessibility of the oil leak, nearly a mile beneath the surface, and the pressure at that depth. Students can visualize the “top kill” approach and add to their thought models. Using textbooks or other resources, students can tie into their physics curriculum by further investigating pressure in fluids.
— Learn about the Gulf Stream and investigate how it might impact the spread of oil. Have students use this graphic to view where oil has made landfall, and then read about worries that it will hit Florida beaches. Finally, students can view the loop currents and continue to track the spread of oil, acting as scientists advising the state of Florida and the East Coast on what to expect, when and how they should be reacting to the potential spread.