Two Years Gone: LSU Looks Back at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

It's hard to believe that April 20, 2012, marks two years since an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing 11 men and signaling the beginning of one of the most controversial ecological disasters ever recorded.

LSU School of Veterinary Medicine students, faculty and alumni responded to the oil spill, providing more than 24,000 hours from May through October 2010.
Ginger Gutner/LSU Veterinary Medicine

Even now, long after the oil has stopped flowing and the clean-ups have dissipated, no one is certain what the long-term impact from nearly 5 million barrels of oil being released into the Gulf will be. But one thing is sure: LSU researchers are going to find out.

LSU has been heavily involved in the response to the spill since the very beginning, with researchers engaged in studies looking at everything from the mechanisms involved in safely extracting oil from the seafloor to long-term studies about the impact the spill has on wetland ecosystems and also the people who inhabit the coastline – and everything in between.

To document the university’s immediate efforts in everything from communications to coordination, the Office of Research & Economic Development, or ORED, spearheaded the publication of “Responding to the Flow: LSU’s Response to the Deepwater Horizon Drilling Disaster,” available online at

"The thought behind this publication was to document for posterity LSU’s tremendous efforts toward responding to this large-scale, unprecedented disaster, while also providing a guide of sorts to other universities who might face a similar situation someday," said Matthew Lee, associate vice chancellor of ORED. "When tragedy strikes or disasters occur, it’s difficult to develop and execute a plan in a reasonable amount of time. We’re providing a blueprint for others so that precious time isn’t wasted." 

The university was honored with gold award from CASE, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, for strategic communication efforts enacted in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

John Rogers Smith, associate professor of petroleum engineering and Campanile Charities Professorship of Offshore Mining and Petroleum Engineering, speaks at a media demonstration at the LSU Petroleum Engineering Research and Technology Transfer, or PERTT, lab during the midst of the crisis.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

While the book is considered to be thorough, it was not exhaustive due to the sheer volume of research taking place in response to this event. Nor has the work stopped. LSU faculty have remained engaged in solving the mysteries and understanding the scope of the problem. In fact, LSU researchers from the College of Science were among the first to report damage in the larvae of killifish, a study widely believed to be evidence of reproductive-level damage to fish native to the impacted areas. Researchers there also developed marine robotic methods to survey the oil off the coast of Louisiana.

"A number of faculty in the College of Science rapidly mobilized research teams to examine the impact of the oil spill," said LSU College of Science Dean Kevin Carman. "Their assessments have garnered local and national attention, including an invitation to testify before the House Committee on Natural Resources. Our scientists continue to play an important role in communicating the effects of the spill on the local economy, environment and ecology."

Researchers from the School of the Coast & Environment remain actively engaged in deepwater and coastal impact studies, analyzing the oil and measuring its impact on seafood, wildlife and natural ecosystems.

"The more obvious effects have since diminished, so the Great BP Oil Spill of 2010 is all but forgotten by many," said Dean of the School of the Coast & Environment Christopher D’Elia. "Researchers throughout LSU, including in our school, are now studying its less obvious effects on food webs, on fish and shellfish harvests and on wetland ecosystems.  Among some present concerns are reports of lesions on finfish, poor ecosystem health in some coastal wetlands, and poor shrimp harvests.  Whether these are related to the spill, and if so are temporary or chronic, remains to be learned through our research in the next decade."

LSU Associate Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering Chandra Theegala presented his oil-skimming prototype to media from around the country in July 2010.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

Faculty at the College of Engineering are working to determine safer and more efficient ways of extraction, as well as other pieces to the puzzle, such as determining the effectiveness of dispersants applied at deep sea levels.

"The Deepwater oil spill was a tragic event which continues to impact the lives of our community and Louisiana's ecosystem. At the time, the college banded together to offer immediate help and support as events unfolded. Environmental engineering students and faculty monitored the impact of the oil on the marsh as it came ashore. Our chemical engineers assessed the effects of the dispersants used to break up the oil slicks and faculty from petroleum engineering served as technical experts, developing alternatives to stop the flow when it was at its peak," said College of Engineering Dean Rick Koubek. "In return, our students, faculty and staff also learned a great deal. It is this practical knowledge which further advances our research and leads to tomorrow's discoveries."

Faculty from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences explored various aspects of the emergency – from how people communicate in the midst of disaster to its impact on their mental and emotional health to developing methods to put Deepwater Horizon into the historical context of earlier extreme events in order to find better ways to respond to future ones.

"The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was an environmental disaster but even more a human tragedy. Eleven people lost their lives and others were injured in the explosion, which should always remain at the center of our memory of the event," said Dean of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences Gaines Foster. "Watching LSU respond to the human tragedy, I gained a renewed and deepened appreciation of the way colleagues in our college and throughout the university help meet the needs of the people of our state and the nation."

Professor Emeritus Edward Overton of the School of the Coast & Environment appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman" in May 2010 to discuss the severity of the spill.
Photo courtesy of CBS

And other departments and colleges from across campus have rallied and continue contributing to the cause, from faculty at the E. J. Ourso College of Business developing economic analyses and testifying before Congress; to College of Art & Design representatives creating artistic representations of the spill to further expound upon its toll; to faculty at the LSU School of Library & Information Science developing topic maps, which act like the page numbers in an index to create a visual link between a topic and a document, to facilitate understanding and research of the impact of the spill.

While it will take more time to have a true picture of what the long-lasting impacts of the spill will be, there is no doubt that LSU research will play a strong role in providing the evidence.

"They say that in times of crisis, real leaders step forward, and LSU is truly a leader in oil spill response and research," said Chancellor Michael Martin. "We are proud that LSU researchers rose to the forefront of the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and continue to remain there, producing top-notch research and answering society’s questions about the legacy this spill will leave us."