Questions: What are the environmental implications of oil spills? What legislative policies have been instituted to mitigate the possibility of future oil spills? How are oil spills cleaned up and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each method? What type of research and innovation surrounding oil spills has been done to prevent their occurrence? In order to foster an environment for emerging technologies and higher standards of living, the United States, Canada and many other nations have increased their dependence on products derived from petroleum. Manifestations of our dependence on oil include fuel for automobiles and houses, as well as its usage for the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and plastics. (EPA, 2012).
Since the demand for oil is high, it needs to be distributed in large volumes increasing the propensity for spillage. An oil spill occurs when petroleum is inadvertently expelled into the environment. Oil spills principally occur two ways; spillage into an aquatic environment, or on land (Think Quest, 2002). Recent oil spills which have caused unprecedented damage have augmented society’s concern for the implications oil spills have on the environment and surrounding ecosystems.
Oil spills are relevant to our study of environmental economics since it incorporates a lot of the course material including water pollution, toxic wastes, waste disposal, liability laws and incentives for innovation. This essay will address the environmental concerns around oil spills by answering questions surrounding the implications of oil spills, recent legislative policies implemented to prevent oil spills, how oil spills are cleaned up and recent research and innovation that has helped to decrease the likelihood of an oil spill.
Environmental Implications: When oil is leaked, it adversely alters aquatic environments by physically harming mammals and damaging their habitat. Oil is a compound derived from hydrogen and carbon, however, the process in which the compound is formed, enables it to be toxic to plants and wildlife (Cartage, 2012). The accidental spillage of oil is damaging to subsurface and surface organisms through the physical damage that is done to their habitat.
The severity of an oil spill is contingent on two factors; whether it is petroleum or non-petroleum based and the general magnitude of the spillage which is typically measured in barrels or U.S. gallons. Oil is destructive to aquatic ecosystems since it interferes with animal membranes, disrupts the regulation of water controlled by fishes and inhibits metabolic activity (Environment Canada, 2011). Typically, wildlife is affected by oil since it gets sticky over time through weathering.
This sticky oil induces hypothermia as oil destroys the waterproofing and insulation of their feathers (Australian Maritime Safety Authority, 2012). The ways in which oil spills damage mammals and birds is threefold; through contamination and destruction of food resources. Animals can be affected by oil through inhalation and ingestion.
Vapors inherent in oil will denigrate a mammal’s central nervous system, liver, lungs. Additionally, when the oil is ingested, it may unable birds and mammals to properly digest their food as intestinal tracts become irreparably damaged. Even if a mammal has not directly been affected by the oil spill, the indirect effects can harm them, too. For instance, if a predator’s prey is affected by the oil damage, consumption of that prey will be harmful.
Coral reefs, an important habitat for fish and other animals is altered when in contact with petroleum. Furthermore, oil spills nurture an environment that is conducive for smothering of animals (Encyclopedia of Earth, 2010). Evidently, oil spills have the propensity to cause severe, permanent damage to wildlife; however, policies are being implemented to diminish the occurrence of oil spills as well as the magnitude of a potential spill. Legislative Policies:
Due to an influx of oil spills during the 1980’s, regulation on operators of oil tankers became more onerous. In 1990, less than a year after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the U.S. instituted the Oil Pollution Act. The act requires the operators of oil tankers to take preventative measures to prevent oil spills, as well as timely, detailed strategies for cleaning up spills (Environmental Literacy Council, 2008).
Moreover, by 2015 the Environmental Literacy Council estimates all tankers navigating through U.S. waters will be double hull. If the outer hull is damaged, the inner hull can contain the fuel (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 2004). Additionally, to expedite the initiation of the cleanup process, the Oil Pollution Act started an Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. While the owner of the oil tanker causing the spill is held liable, sometimes the responsible party is unknown or refuses to pay.
The fund has the capacity to fund up to $1billion (USD) per spill. In addition to oil spill cleanup, the fund’s capital outlays include research and development expenses and compensation for eligible claimants of damage caused by the oil spill (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2011).
Evidently, international law has begun to replicate American policies. For instance, the Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC) follows U.S. law in the event of oil spills in their jurisdiction, but damages are not as punitive (Environmental Literacy Council, 2008). While regulatory policies provide the precautions necessary to prevent and minimize the occurrence of an oil spill, they do not address the remediation processes substantially.
Cleanup Methodologies: There are a myriad of ways to contain oil spills in an attempt to minimize their impact on the environment and the localized population in the area of the spill. In order for oil spill cleanup efforts to be effective, the proper tools need to be utilized. Machinery, chemicals and other tools used to clean up a spill site is contingent on the conditions of the spill site and the type of oil that was spilled (EPA, 2011). Two popular methods employed when the oil is on the water are skimming and dispersants.
Chemical compounds are used to expedite the dispersing process, or the diminishment of the oil’s concentration in a confined area. Ideally, the oil will be spread throughout the whole oceanic system and not reach the shore, which is the advantage of this strategy. However, the drawback is the dispersant may have adverse effects on small animals, plants and fish in the area that is dispersed (Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, 1993). In-situ burning is an effective process to reduce the oil present in the ocean.
A controlled fire is initiated to convert oil to a tarry residue that can easily be removed after the burning (The International Tankers Owner Pollution Federal Limited, 2010). For the advantage of easy cleanup to come to fruition, conducive factors to combustion must be present. Since the fumes from the oil are ignited during an in-situ burning, the oil cannot have been weathered on the water for long. If the oil has been present in the water long before an in-situ burning, the fumes that are ignited can dissipate (ADEC, 1993).
An apparent drawback to in-situ burning is the greenhouse gases that are emitted through smoke, a by-product of the fire. These greenhouse gases are harmful to animals in the area, as well as human health. If the oil has reached the shores, bioremediation schemes are usually employed to begin the cleanup process. Cleaning the shore after the spill has occurred depends on the geology of the shore, strength of currents and the type of oil spilled (EPA, 2012).
When bioremediation is utilized, fertilizers are applied to the site to stimulate the growth of oil feeding organisms (ADEC, 1993). In order for bioremediation to be effective, mechanical methods such as power washing, bulldozing and raking must be used to assist the process. Bioremediation needs to be assisted since it takes a while to begin; one major drawback. However, since this is a biological, natural remedy, it is not as harmful as in-situ burning and other pervasive measures (EPA, 2012). Current measures taken to cleanup oil spills are fraught with environmental concerns, however, research is underway to ensure the benefits greatly outweigh the risks of each method. Research & Development:
When an oil company’s tankers have spilled oil, the fines paid are exorbitant giving them incentive to engineer tankers that will have a lower probability to accidentally expel oil. Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon drilling incident, British Petroleum (BP) announced a Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. Between now and 2020, BP has agreed to distribute $500 million (USD) in research funds to a consortium of universities around the Gulf of Mexico. The premise of the fund is to set aside money for research of the environmental damages caused by oil spills as well as innovative technologies and methods to respond to potential oil spills (Mark Schrope, 2011).
One university that has won an allocation of funds has decided to study the efficacy of dispersants in deep waters as well as their environmental implications. Oil companies are taking proactive steps themselves, too. Tankers will soon be required to have a double-hull to mitigate oil spillage. Additionally, apparatuses to aid in the “skimming” of oil on the surface of the ocean have been implemented (ADEC, 1993). Conclusion:
The controversial topic of oil spills encompasses a lot of course material. The economic incentive on controlling costs has oil companies double hulling their cargo ships to prevent oil spills. Legal policies have helped diminish the occurrence of oil spills. Since the institution of the Oil pollution Act in 1990, the magnitude of oil spills, measured in barrels of oil released has diminished substantially (EPA, 2012).
As precedence has been set in terms of oil spill magnitude and types of oil spilled, the cleanup processes can begin promptly and the correct methods to employ can increase the efficacy of an oil cleanup. Although it is impossible to eradicate the occurrence of an oil spill, oil companies as well as scientists have taken proactive steps to ensure the negative impacts can be limited. As continued research is conducted, oil spills will be less damaging and infrequent in nature.
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