What Happened at Deepwater Horizon?

The Deepwater Horizon blow out was the worst oil spill in almost 100 years of offshore oil and gas drilling.

In 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the South-East coast of the US, BP was drilling for oil when an explosion and fire led to an oil spill that took 87 days to stop. Eleven workers on the rig lost their lives in the incident. Images of the spill attracted worldwide media attention and inspired a 2016 movie titled ‘Deepwater Horizon’ about the incident.

Investigations by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the US Coast Guard following the incident and identified several causes including multiple human errors and technical failures including the failure of the rig’s blowout preventer.

What does Deepwater Horizon mean for drilling in other areas?

The Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico remains a profound concern to many Australians, and people in all areas where oil and gas drilling occurs. Many people ask are we putting our own waters and coast at risk?

While there are risks associated with oil and gas exploration that must managed to ensure safe operations, the industry is confident that an incident of the scale of Deepwater Horizon will not be repeated.

To understand why offshore exploration drilling and production is considered safe to continue, we must understand the failures of Deepwater Horizon and the regulatory changes and new industry practices that make our offshore drilling operations different.

What’s stopping another Deepwater Horizon incident?

The incident resulted in the most aggressive and comprehensive changes to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in US history. The US radically changed their regulations to well design, workplace safety and corporate accountability. It also led to regulation changes around the world including to changes to equipment standards and regulatory standards in Australia.

The Commonwealth, States and the Northern Territory and Australian industry have responded proactively and comprehensively to the Montara and Macondo incidents. There has been unprecedented level of collaboration by industry (internationally and domestically) to systematically evaluate the lessons from Montara and the Gulf of Mexico and to act in response to those lessons.

Operators have also changed the way they operate offshore drilling rigs to prevent an incident happening at another rig. BP made more than 160 individual changes to the way they operate.

In response to the Deepwater Horizon incident new equipment called ‘capping stacks’ were developed enable even the largest oil spills to be contained. Though they have not been used since Deepwater Horizon, capping stacks are now on standby right around the world as an additional safeguard in the event on any major incident.

What has Australia done to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen here?

The Commonwealth, States and the Northern Territory and Australian industry have responded proactively and comprehensively. A systematic review of regulation strengthened the legal framework and in 2011 and a new beefed-up regulator was created called the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).

The creation of NOPSEMA as the independent regulator, equipped with adequate powers and given the responsibility to ‘cover the field’ has been a vital reform. NOPSEMA has expanded functions including occupational health and safety; structural integrity of facilities; wells and well related equipment; environmental management and regulation of day-to-day petroleum operations.

The industry funded Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre (AMOSC) has reviewed its preparedness and response equipment and strategies. AMOSC has significantly increased its capacity to deal with an offshore spill, both in terms of staffing and equipment. This has included the development and purchase of a Subsea First Response Toolkit (SFRT), which allows for rapid intervention to prepare the well head and the immediate surrounding seabed area so that a Capping Stack or Containment System can be deployed far more rapidly on its arrival. Based in Perth, the SFRT provides specialised equipment in Australia for immediate use in the event of an incident. Australia’s SFRT is one of just five worldwide.

Drilling contractors are now required to have five-yearly safety critical inspection and maintenance of their BOP equipment aligned with the new Standard known as API STD 53. NOPSEMA assesses operator compliance with the planned inspection and maintenance requirements. Non-compliance to maintain emergency equipment results in enforcement action.

The industry has also worked with the international oil and gas industry to ensure Australia has access to the world?s best well incident prevention and response capability. The International Oil and Gas Producers Association’s Global Industry Response Group has established a Subsea Well Response Project, which has included the purchase and placement of a Well Capping System in Singapore.


With new industry best-practice and stringent regulation and oversight, offshore drilling has changed dramatically since Deepwater Horizon. Operators and their equipment undergo independent inspection and have shown they take their environmental and safety obligations seriously by often commissioning additional research to reassure local communities.

Since these new practices and regulation have been implemented, no major incidents have been associated with offshore oil rigs in Australian waters.

Learn more about offshore drilling and deepwater drilling.

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