Oil Spills and Prevention

After the tragic BP oil spill in 2010, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was quoted saying “the day that we’ve been fearing is upon us.” It is obvious that oil spills are a major concern throughout the world and pose a menacing threat to our environment and our public health.

When hearing the phrase “oil spill,” many immediately think about death, destruction and disaster. Unfortunately, a majority of people only acknowledge the devastating and highly publicized oil spills, but what they don’t see and acknowledge is that millions of gallons of oil quietly end up in the seas every year, mostly from non-accident sources. Throughout history there have been countless oil spills, some of the biggest including Amoco Cadiz, Arabian Gulf, Exxon Valdez, Megaborg, and many more. All of these spills serve as vivid examples of the risks inherent in oil shipping, offshore drilling and other uses of oil. When examining oil spills it is necessary to fully understand the causes.

Oil pollution is caused by a number of factors, for example, people making mistakes or being careless, equipment breaking down, natural disasters such as hurricanes and deliberate acts by terrorists, countries at war, vandals, or illegal dumpers. Oil spills can range from small to big, but any oil spill can be majorly damaging. According to Miller, oil is the “lifeblood” of most of the world’s economics and modern lifestyles and is the worlds largest business. In addition, oil is used to grow most of our food, transport people and goods, and make most of the things we use everyday. Because our society is very focused on the economy and achieving the highest standards of living, the heavy dependence on oil is unlikely to change, and this immense dependence brings increased production of oil. With all the oil demands, oil companies are likely to take shortcuts to make the most profit, which is a big reason why oil spills occur.

A prime example of carelessness in the process of transporting oil can be seen in the case of one of the biggest oil spills in the history of the United States, the Exxon Valdez spill into Prince William Sound, Alaska in March 1989. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was one of the most publicized and studied environmental tragedies in history and has been cited to have occurred for numerous specific reasons. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and determined that the probable causes were 1) the failure of the third mate to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue and excessive workload,

2) the failure of the master to provide a proper navigation watch due to possible impairment from alcohol, 3) the failure of Exxon Shipping Company to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez, 4) the failure of the U.S. Coast Guard to provide an effective vessel traffic system, and 5) the lack of effective pilot and escort services. Approximately 11 million gallons or 257,000 barrels were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Compared to other spills the Exxon Valdez spill was an environmental disaster well beyond the scope of other spills because of the timing, the remote and spectacular location, the thousands of miles of rugged and wild shoreline, and the abundance of wildlife in the region. Similar to other disasters, oil spills leave behind major damage in their wake. Not all oils are the same, there are numerous different types of oil and this means that each oil spill is different depending on the type of oil that is spilt.

Each oil spill will have a different impact on wildlife and the surrounding environment depending on the type of oil spilled, the location of the spill, the species of wildlife in the area, the timing of breeding cycles and seasonal migrations, and even the weather at sea during the oil spill. When it comes to beaches, marshlands, and fragile marine ecosystems, the oil coats everything it touches and becomes an unwelcome, but long term part of every ecosystem it enters. If the oil from a spill reaches the beach it will cling to every rock and grain of sand. If the oil washes into coastal marshes, mangrove forests or other wetlands, plants and grasses absorb the oil, damaging the plants and making the whole area unsuitable as wildlife habitat.

When some of the oil eventually stops floating on the surface of the water and begins to sink into the marine environment, it can have the same kind of damaging effects on fragile underwater ecosystems, killing or contaminating many fish and smaller organisms that are essential links in the food chain. In addition to harming ecosystems, oil spills kill birds, marine mammals, and fish.

Oil-covered birds are practically a universal symbol of the environmental damage wreaked by oil spills. Even small amounts of oil can be deadly to a bird. The oil coats the feathers of birds making it impossible for them to fly and destroying their natural waterproofing and insulation. Some birds try to clean the oil off themselves which ends up poisoning them and killing them in a more indirect way. When it comes to marine mammals, oil kills species such as dolphins, whales, seals and sea otters. For example, oil can become stuck in whales and dolphin’s blowholes making it impossible to breathe and communicate effectively. Similar to birds, when otters and seals fur gets coated with oil they become very vulnerable to hypothermia.

Large oil spills can kill fish directly by suffocation and can also destroy the surrounding environment where fish lay eggs and young fish develop. More specifically, the Exxon Valdez oil spill impacted approximately 1,300 miles of shoreline, with 200 miles heavily or moderately oiled and 1,100 miles lightly or very lightly oiled out of a 9,000-mile shoreline. Because the spill was so large, the effects have been far reaching.

Some 2,000 sea otters, 302 harbor seals, and about 250,000 seabirds died in the days immediately following the spill, not to mention all the animals that didn’t died but have suffered an impacted life since the spill. Researchers writing for the journal Science in 2003 cautioned that more than a decade later, a significant amount of oil still remains and the long-term impacts may be more devastating than previously thought.

Charles H. Peterson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his colleagues have compiled detailed research throughout the years and estimate that shoreline habitats (such as mussel beds) affected by the spill will take up to thirty years to recover fully (2033). Response and cleanup regarding an oil spill is critically important, along with prevention. The Oil Spill Prevention and Response Center for Offshore Safety reports that because of the advanced planning and coordination of the National Response System, the speed and effectiveness of spill response today is greatly enhanced. In addition, according to this center, in the event of an accidental release, the responsible party need only refer to the Area Contingency Plan (ACP) to identity the appropriate response strategies and technologies.

There are different plans for different areas because response strategies can widely vary depending on where the spill occurred. In addition, major legislation has been put in place to respond to this kind of environmental disaster. For example, the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was signed into law in August of 1990, largely in response to the growing concern from the public after the Exxon Valdez spill. The OPA improved the nations ability to prevent and respond to oil spills by establishing provisions that expand the federal governments jurisdiction, and provide the money and resources necessary to respond to spills.

One of the key provisions of OPA provides “the responsible party for a vessel or facility from which oil is discharged, or which poses a substantial threat of a discharge is liable for: (1) certain specified damages resulting from the discharged oil, and (2) removal costs incurred in a manner consistent with the National Contingency Plan (NCP).” This provision is so key because many oil spills come from companies that ship oil, because this company is working to make profits they are more inclined to be careful because if they are responsible for an oil spill, under this provision in the OPA, they will have to pay. In addition to the solutions provided in OPA, scientists may have found a “complete solution” to oil spills. According to T.C. Mike Chung and Xuepei Yuan, their cost-effective new polyolefin oil-SAP technology will transform an oil spill into a “soft, oil-containing gel.”

One pound of this polymer material can recover about 5 gallons of crude oil. Once the gel is collected it can be transported and converted to a liquid and refined like regular crude oil. In conclusion, oil pollution has been a big problem for a long time. Despite the horrific damage oil spills bring, there have been many measures taken to prevent these spills, and to respond to them if they do occur. Although there are solutions to this problem, oil spills can almost never be fully cleaned up. For example, despite massive clean-up efforts following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a 2007 study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that 26,000 gallons of oil from the spill was still trapped in the sand along the Alaska shoreline. This statistic shows the importance of preventing these spills from ever happening in the first place, and hopefully brings about major change in transporting oil in the future.