No. 1: BP Oil Spill

On April 20, 11 workers went missing after an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon, a BP-leased oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Their tragedy, though, was soon overshadowed by the ensuing BP oil spill, which threatened U.S. southern shores.

As BP struggled to control nature, technology, and the ire of humankind, forces converged to assist the multinational company in containing the mess. Still, the horror seemed to unfold in slow motion, as the spill approached the ecological disastrousness of the 1989 Exxon Valdez crash and became the most searched term on Yahoo! in 2010 — a first for a news story since we started compiling Top 10 searches a decade ago.

Spill cam: must-see video
The techie Obama administration, as part of its usual modus operandi, made updates on its site and YouTube channel. Against BP’s wishes, U.S. senators insisted on the live camera to show ocean-floor operations. That underwater camera turned out to be the most compelling programming decision of 2010: Viewers obsessively tuned in on their computers and mobile phones to see the best — and not so best — efforts to contain the mess.

Searches on all aspects of the crisis, investigation, and damage surfaced daily. People went online to study vocabulary like “junk shot” and “top kill,” words that sounded like shade-tree mechanic jargon for improvised solutions. By June, the public anger against BP and its bumbling CEO reached a crescendo and was mercilessly parodied (as in the Upright Citizens Brigade viral video). In July, a cap at last brought some resolution to the leak, but no relief from the devastation that ground industries to a halt, killed wildlife, and shifted political tides.

Rorschach oil blot
At its core, the BP oil spill was about workplace safety and America’s energy policies. But the longer the saga unfolded, the more the spill became a kind of Rorschach blot where people could project their present-day anxieties (and a few age-old ones as well):

Texas representative Joe Barton’s flip-flopping apologies (first to then BP CEO Tony Hayward for the “shakedown” compensation fund, then a mea culpa for that apology) reflected the grumpy tea-party mood about big government and the need for governmental pressure and oversight.
Billionaire CEO Hayward’s own gaffes (especially his plaintive words to “The Today Show” about wanting to get his “life back“) galled a nation already crabby with bosses who earned big bonuses or parachuted out of failing companies with million-dollar compensations. The galling didn’t end: He got the boot after 28 years on the job, and received a $1 million severance and a pension plan worth $17 million.
There was even a whiff of colonial resentment, as a few English people took offense at the insistence in calling BP by its old name, British Petroleum. (It was probably for the best that few took notice of BP’s original names, Anglo-Persian Oil Company and Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.)
The specter of Katrina hovered over all this: The hurricane’s fifth anniversary was only months away, and many were watching to see how the Obama administration would avoid the missteps of the Bush White House in dealing with disaster.
At a time of instant gratification and technological marvels, the wreckage reminded people of the limits to humankind’s ambitions.

In crisis, American ingenuity
The story wasn’t all hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Gulf residents queued up to find clean-up jobs, partly because the spill had disrupted their livelihood and partly because they wanted to help.

Spectators learned about deep-sea science — and about how much we didn’t know. Yet, typical of the American spirit, people sought out and offered up YouTube theories and volunteered to craft homey remedies (pantyhose stuffed with donated hair proved especially popular).

Then emerged the surreal Hollywood moment when actor Kevin Costner stepped up with a centrifuge oil-cleanup machine. He wasn’t the only contender for hero: Robert Bea, a University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor, turned out to be the Chesley Sullenberger of the oil industry as he helped the White House and the public understand what was happening. On the government side, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Paul Hsieh convinced his skeptical team from yanking the last containment cap, thanks to his overnight calculations that proved it would hold.

Out of about 123,000 ideas that poured into BP, more than two dozen were implemented. Within six months, 154 million gallons, an estimated 75 percent of the spill, had been dispersed.

A long aftermath
The cap killed the gushing crude, and the World Cup took the BP oil spill out of the headlines, though by no means out of people’s minds. By November, most of the gulf was open for fishing, but worrying signs of deep-sea damage — such as a die-off of bottom-dwelling coral — warned of many uncertainties ahead.

The U.S. presidential commission’s investigations into the circumstances leading up to the disaster earned criticism, then praise for calling out issues such as BP’s “culture of complacency.” Its final report is due out in January 2011, but the National Academy of Engineering’s interim report, which named names, cast BP as bearing the brunt of responsibility.

For its part, BP has so far repaid the government $520 million in spill costs, although likely more bills will come — and likely will be paid without too much trouble, since the company returned to profit by its third quarter. A “demonized” Hayward continued to gather more wincing news coverage: The former CEO told students in November, “All of the oil is now gone” (no mention of oil that’s buried) and also said, “The biggest lesson I learned was how to manage expectations.”

Hayward, who started his own consultancy, may not have to worry anymore about American expectations, but BP still will. No matter the outcome, the oil company’s fortunes will be tied to the Gulf of Mexico for a long time to come.

–Vera H-C Chan (a version of this article originally appeared in Fast-Talking Dame on Shine)