It's now official: BP's busted well in the Gulf of Mexico has produced the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.
[Photos: Oil spill images]
This might seem like an obvious truth to anyone paying attention to the news over the 100-plus days that the spill has been contaminating the Gulf. But arriving at a reliable estimate of the scale of the disaster has been a contentious question throughout the life of the spill. Estimates varied wildly, and BP's persistent downplaying of the damage dramatically undermined public confidence in the oil giant.
The BP well has released just under 5 million barrels — roughly 210 million gallons — of oil. That's 20 times more oil than was released during the Exxon Valdez spill — which previously held the record for the worst oil spill on American territory.
That figure also decisively surpassed the 3.3 million barrels released during the Ixtoc spill in the Bay of Campeche off the eastern coast of Mexico in 1979, heretofore the world's largest accidental oil spill.
According to the New York Times' Campbell Robertson and Clifford Krauss, the official estimate of the amount of oil spill means that BP faces fines of anywhere between $5.4 billion and $21 billion, depending on the degree to which federal investigators decide that gross negligence sparked the spill.
As for the longer-term fallout from the spill, that, too, will take some digging. Some observers optimistically contend that Mother Nature will lessen its impact, but scientists have already noted that the Gulf's traditional summer dead zone — the annual dip in oxygen levels along the Gulf shoreline — is twice as large as it was last year, representing an area the size of Massachusetts. In other words, BP has set a world record that's not likely to earn it any laudatory blue ribbons.