Smoke rises from surface oil being burned by cleanup crews near the Deepwater Horizon blowout. The well spewed nearly five million barrels, making it the world's largest accidental marine oil spill.
On a blistering June day in Houma, Louisiana, the local offices of BP—now theDeepwater Horizon Incident Command Center—were swarming with serious men and women in brightly colored vests. Top BP managers and their consultants wore white, the logistics team wore orange, federal and state environmental officials wore blue. Reporters wore purple vests so their handlers could keep track of them. On the walls of the largest "war room," huge video screens flashed spill maps and response-vessel locations. Now and then one screen showed a World Cup soccer match.
Mark Ploen, the silver-haired deputy incident commander, wore a white vest. A 30-year veteran of oil spill wars, Ploen, a consultant, has helped clean up disasters around the world, from Alaska to the Niger Delta. He now found himself surrounded by men he'd worked with on the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska two decades earlier. "It's like a high school reunion," he quipped.
Fifty miles offshore, a mile underwater on the seafloor, BP's Macondo well was spewing something like an Exxon Valdez every four days. In late April an explosive blowout of the well had turned the Deepwater Horizon, one of the world's most advanced drill rigs, into a pile of charred and twisted metal at the bottom of the sea. The industry had acted as if such a catastrophe would never occur. So had its regulators. Nothing like it had happened in the Gulf of Mexico since 1979, when a Mexican well called Ixtoc I blew out in the shallow waters of the Bay of Campeche. Drilling technology had become so good since then, and the demand for oil so irresistible, that oil companies had sailed right off the continental shelf into ever deeper waters.