10 Years of NOAA’s Work After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Timeline

NOAA was on the scene within hours of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, and we’re continuing to lead large-scale efforts to restore natural resources and communities in the Gulf of Mexico.

A man on a boat looks out at an oil slick

A wildlife biologist surveys oiled sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

From the earliest moments of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA has played a lead role in all the complex steps along the way. Learn the details of the work we’ve done over the past 10 years—responding to the spill, assessing the damage, developing a restoration plan, and implementing on-the-ground restoration projectsand how our work is continuing today.

The Oil Spill Begins

April 20, 2010 – An explosion on the Deepwater Horizon Macondo oil well drilling platform started the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. For 87 days after the explosion, the well blasted oil and natural gas continuously and uncontrollably into the northern Gulf of Mexico.

July 15, 2010 – After several unsuccessful attempts to contain the spill, a “capping stack” was installed that stopped the release of oil. Every day, for 87 days, the Macondo well had released an average of more than 1.5 million gallons of oil into the ocean. In all, an estimated 134 million gallons of oil was released. 

Responding to the Crisis

April 20, 2010 – NOAA is the lead science agency for coastal oil spills, and our experts were on the scene from the earliest moments of the crisis. We brought decades of experience protecting and restoring our coasts from oil spills. We provided critical information to guide the emergency response, both on-scene and through our headquarters and regional offices. 

2010 through 2015 – NOAA’s response to the spill, led by our Office of Response and Restoration, started within hours of the explosion. It continued for years, through the well capping, cleanup, and assessment. Our response was unprecedented, involving thousands of staff across the agency to meet the scale of the spill. We used satellite imagery and real-time data on tides and currents to predict and verify oil spill location and movement. To ensure the safety of fishermen and seafood, our scientists took water and seafood samples. In addition, our experts established a marine mammal and sea turtle group. We deployed NOAA technical experts for wildlife reconnaissance, response, and rescue of sea turtles and marine mammals.

    Assessing the Damage

    April 20, 2010 – As soon as news of the spill was received, NOAA and other agencies began working to assess how the oil and other contaminants were impacting natural resources.The Oil Pollution Act authorizes certain federal agencies, states, and tribes—collectively known as natural resource trustees—to conduct a natural resource damage assessment. This process focuses on evaluating the impacts of oil spills and other disasters, and planning and carrying out restoration efforts. Working together with the oil spill response efforts, teams of scientists rapidly mobilized. They evaluated the potential impacts of the spill on fish, wildlife, surrounding habitats, and public use of those resources.

    April 26, 2011 – Federal and state agencies officially established the Deepwater Horizon Trustee Council. Since then, the Council has worked to restore the Gulf of Mexico to the condition it would have been in if the spill had not happened. 

    2010 through 2015 – NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program—in coordination with other NOAA offices and alongside other Trustees—led the effort to assess the impacts of the spill. Over the course of the assessment, experts used field studies, laboratory studies, scientific literature, and model-based approaches. They documented the quantity and location of oil, the ways in which the spill was affecting natural resources, and the type and amount of restoration required. This ecosystem-scale effort spanned thousands of square miles of ocean and shoreline. It included more than 20,000 trips to the field to collect data and more than 100,000 samples collected. 

    Man wearing protective gear holding an oiled sea turtle

    NOAA veterinarian Dr. Brian Stacy prepares to clean an oiled Kemp's Ridley turtle.

    Building a Comprehensive Restoration Plan

    Early 2011 – With the findings from the assessment, NOAA and other Trustees began planning our restoration efforts. In early 2011, we began a scoping effort to identify issues of public concern. As part of the scoping process, the Trustees hosted public meetings across all the Gulf states. We wanted to identify concerns of the affected public, state and federal agencies, and tribes, and to involve the public in the decision-making process.

    October 5, 2015 – The Trustees released a draft of their comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem restoration plan for the Gulf of Mexico. This draft plan included a detailed assessment of impacts of the spill on natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico and the services those resources provide. It also identified the types of restoration needed to compensate the public for these impacts. 

    October 5 to December 4, 2015 – The Trustees received public comment on the draft for 60 days. During that time, we hosted eight public meetings in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and Washington, D.C. We received more than 6,300 public comments—both written and verbal. The comments were reviewed by the Trustees and taken into consideration prior to finalizing the plan.

    February 19, 2016 – The Trustees released the Deepwater Horizon Final Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan. In addition to delineating a comprehensive approach to restoration, the plan also outlined the structure of how the Trustees would operate. It established Trustee Implementation Groups for seven restoration areas: each of the five Gulf states, Open Ocean, and Regionwide. The plan describes the process for each group to develop project-specific restoration plans for their respective area. It also outlined the responsibilities for individual Trustees as they implement and track the progress of their restoration work.  

    March 2016 – After a 30-day waiting period, the Trustees made a final decision to select the restoration alternative evaluated in the plan as our approach for restoration implementation. We entered a Record of Decision that explained our decision to pursue this approach.

    Aerial view of marsh shoreline lined by oyster reefs

    An aerial view of a NOAA-led project to protect marsh habitat in Mississippi.

    Reaching a Historic Settlement

    July 6, 2012 – NOAA and other Trustees were leading the natural resource damage assessment process. Meanwhile, other civil and criminal actions were also underway to respond to environmental damages caused by the spill. This included the 2012 RESTORE Act. It established a fund that receives 80 percent of any Clean Water Act civil and administrative penalties paid by companies responsible for the spill. It also:

    • Created the RESTORE Council, composed of the five Gulf states and six federal agencies, including NOAA. Through the Council, NOAA received funding for three programs currently underway: the GulfCorps program with restoration teams in each of the Gulf states; the Connecting Coastal Waters initiative to restore more than 22,000 acres of habitat across the Gulf; and the Council’s Monitoring and Assessment Program, supporting the science-based decision-making and restoration evaluation.
    • Established the NOAA RESTORE Science Program, which funds research and monitoring in the Gulf. The program has already supported nearly $40 million in new research, and expects to invest another $6 million or more each year for the next two decades. 

    May 13, 2013 – The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation launched the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. This fund, established in 2013, arose from the criminal plea agreement with BP and Transocean. The Foundation directs the funds to restoration projects benefiting the natural resources that were impacted by the spill. NOAA assists by providing technical input and environmental compliance advice on projects proposed for funding. We also help ensure coordination among all the partners in Gulf restoration. 

    April 4, 2016 – BP, the United States, and the five Gulf states agreed to a settlement. It resolved claims for federal civil penalties and natural resource damages related to the Deepwater Horizon spill. The $20.8 billion settlement, which included up to $8.8 billion for natural resource damages, was the largest environmental damage settlement in United States history.

    A group of people planting vegetation on a shore

    GulfCorps members work to build a living shoreline in Apalachicola, Florida.

    Working Toward a Restored Gulf of Mexico

    April 21, 2011 – The Trustees announced an agreement under which BP would provide up to $1 billion toward implementation of early restoration projects. This early restoration agreement allowed for some restoration work to begin prior to reaching a settlement. It allowed for  on-the-ground restoration to begin while Trustees continued with assessment and restoration planning. 

    2012 through 2015 – The Trustees negotiated and sought public review on a series of early restoration projects with BP. Several NOAA-led projects were approved, including:

    2016 to Present – Since the settlement, NOAA has continued our early restoration projects and taken a significant lead in new projects. We are currently leading 35 natural resource damage assessment projects with budgets totalling $322 million. These projects benefit fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, mesophotic and deep benthic communities, oysters, gulf sturgeon, and coastal and offshore habitats. 

    September 28, 2016 – The Trustees held their first annual public meeting on Gulf restoration efforts. Trustees continue to host these public meetings each year to provide updates on work since the settlement. In addition to public meetings, the Trustees provide annual reporting on the progress of activities underway. These reports include information on planning, project implementation, and fund allocations and expenditures for each Trustee Implementation Group. NOAA and our partners will continue to hold public meetings and provide annual updates on our restoration progress and how we’re spending settlement funds. 

    April 2017 – Trustees received the first annual post-settlement payments from BP. 

    June 27, 2017 – The Regionwide Trustee Implementation Group released four strategic frameworks to assist with restoration planning. These frameworks provide broad context and guidance for the restoration of oysters, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals across multiple restoration areas.

    2017 and 2018 – The Trustee Implementation Groups finalized their first restoration plans, selecting projects to continue work started through the early restoration projects. 

    January 4, 2018 – The Trustees released the first version of their monitoring and adaptive management manual. The manual includes guidance for monitoring needed to evaluate restoration outcomes and benefits to injured resources. It will be revised periodically as needed based on developments in guidance, restoration approaches, and best practices.

    September 2019 – The Regionwide Trustee Implementation Group asked the public to submit restoration project ideas to be considered in future proposals. The Trustees reviewed more than 5,000 project ideas. Once identified, they will represent the first regionwide set of projects for coastal and marine resources that range throughout the Gulf and Gulf states.

    December 10, 2019 – The Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group announced 18 projects totaling almost $226 million. The projects will help restore fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and deep-sea coral habitat that were injured by the spill. They represent the largest dedication of Natural Resource Damage Assessment funds to restore oceanic marine resources in the Gulf of Mexico to date. 

    Looking Ahead

    NOAA’s work restoring the Gulf will continue past 2030. We will lead the implementation and monitoring of numerous large restoration projects, evaluate restoration effectiveness, and make corrective actions as needed. NOAA is using lessons from the Deepwater Horizon spill and subsequent research to be even better prepared to provide expert scientific support during other oil spills. These lessons, and our continued scientific support, will ensure restoration provides sustained benefits to natural resources and communities in the Gulf.