Environmental Damage Because of Oil Spills


Crude oil is a fossil fuel that is most commonly used by all countries of the world. The total global consumption of crude oil and oil derivatives is 10 million metric tons per day, out of which the share of the U.S is 2.6 million metric tons per day (Fingas & Charles, 2001, page 2). Crude oil and its derivatives are used by countries to not only generate their energy requirements ranging from operating huge power plants to powering the vehicles that play on the roads of their cities but also to produce much-needed products like plastics, fertilizers, and chemical feedstocks (Fingas et al., 2001, page 1). As crude oil is usually obtained from areas that are distant from locations where it is refined and later used (Science Clarified, 2009, para.2), it is required to be transported in bulk by utilizing between 10 to 15 modes of transportation ranging from oil tankers and pipelines to railcars and tank trucks (Fingas et al., 2001, page 1). While oil spills invariably cause pollution and damage to the environment, some of them have been particularly massive, and have resulted in huge damage to the ecosystem.

Causes of oil spills

The first cause of oil spills is accidents to the modes of transportation that are employed. The most common in this category are accidents to oil tankers during the transportation of oil. Such accidents take place when the ship collides with an object in the water or runs aground, resulting in a hole or holes being torn into its hull through which the oil escapes (Anderson, 2008, para.1). Accidents may also occur to pipelines through which the oil is pumped. This usually happens when the pipeline bursts due to various reasons.

The second cause of oil spills in natural catastrophes like earthquakes, hurricanes and floods. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S in 2005, it severely damaged oil installations like storage depots, processing units, and pipelines, spilling over 26.5 million liters of oil into the environment. In another example, the Kansas floods in 2007 were responsible for the release of more than 151,400 liters of oil from a damaged refinery into the ecosystem (Anderson, 2008, para.4).

The third cause of oil spills is a willful release of oil as a deliberate act of sabotage during wartime. The best example of this is the massive oil spill that took place during the ending stage of the Gulf War in 1992 when retreating Iraqi soldiers not only released oil from ships and offshore oil installations but also set ablaze 500 Kuwaiti oil wells (Science Clarified, 2009, para.11).

Oil spills damage the environment

The first victim of oil spills is wildlife {birds and animals}. The floating oil covers the bodies of seabirds totally, stopping them from shaking their feathers to maintain warmth. Secondly, the oil that washes ashore first suffocates, and then kills by toxic reactions, the birds and animals that live close to coasts. The death toll is particularly high if the oil spill washes ashore on small bays that are used as nesting areas by birds and animals (Science Clarified, 2009, para.8&9). For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 caused the death of 1,000 sea otters as well as 36,000 seabirds of different species including 153 bald eagles that were poisoned after consuming the oil-coated dead seabirds (Science Clarified, 2009, para.10).

The second victim of oil spills is the land near the coast. The oil spills that wash ashore inundate vast stretches of coastal land, totally polluting them. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill polluted 1,900 kilometers of Alaskan coastland (Science Clarified, 2009, para.9&10). In another example, 320 kilometers of France’s Brittany coastland was polluted by an oil spill from the Amoco Cadiz in 1978 (NOAA, para.1).

The third victim of oil spills is the atmosphere. One of the major cleanup techniques involves burning the oil off the surface of the water. This releases toxic oil fumes into the atmosphere. Atmospheric pollution takes on massive proportions in the case of the large-scale burning of oil. This was best exemplified during the Gulf War in 1992 when 500 oil wells were set ablaze in Kuwait, causing most of the 115 billion liters of oil (Science Clarified, 2009, para.11) that was spilled to go up in toxic smoke before the fires were finally extinguished by teams of international firefighters.

Prevention of oil spills

The United Nations has taken the lead in trying to prevent oil spills by passing the MARPOL {Marine Pollution} 73/78 Act in 1983, calling for international cooperation in combating oil spills and ensuring damage to the global ecosystem (Anderson, 2008, para.6). It also enacted the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation {OPRC} whose major feature is to advise nations to allow their ports to be used only by oil tankers that carry proper and recent safety inspection documents (Anderson, 2008, para.9).

In the U.S, the task of preventing oil spills and cleaning up pollution caused by them is handled by the Environment Protection Agency {EPA} and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration {NOAA} (Anderson, 2008, para.6). The U.S also passed into law the Oil Pollution Control Act in 1990 with 4 distinct stipulations: firstly, oil industries should adopt stronger measures to protect against oil spills; secondly, by 2015, all oil tankers plying in U.S waters should change their structure from single to double hull thereby ensuring that the inner hull would protect the oil even if the outer hull is pierced; thirdly, a list of precise emergency response measures was laid down to tackle oil spills that do take place (Anderson, 2008, para.7); and lastly, oil tanker owners could be held financially liable for oil spills whereby punitive damages could be awarded against them (Anderson, 2008, para.9).

Cleaning oil spills

Clean up of oil spills {especially on coastal lands} is a costly process. For example, in Canada it costs an average of $ 20 to clean up every liter of oil spilled; in the U.S, the average cost is $ 100 per liter of spilled oil (Fingas et al., 2001, page 1).

The first way of cleaning up oil spills is to employ mechanical methods. One method involves first using oil booms to gather as much of the oil spill as possible and then using oil skimmers {there are presently 7 types of oil skimmers} to scoop the floating oil from the water surface (Bjorken, para.14). For example, an oil boom measuring 18.3 meters and 10 oil skimmers were used to recover 533,685 liters of oil from the Exxon Oil spill of 1990 (Burger, 1994, page 10). The second mechanical method involves the utilization of various types of absorbents to clean up oil from coastlands. This method does not allow animals to touch the oil. For example, after the bark is placed on the oily land, it becomes relatively simple to lift the soaked bark off the land manually (Bjorken, para.18). The third mechanical method is to use dispersants that serve to reduce the tension at the oil-water common surface, thereby making the oil dissolve in water in the form of droplets without much difficulty (Bjorken, para.20).

The second way of cleaning up oil spills, called in situ burning, involves burning the oil off the water surface (Anderson, 2008, para.11).

The third way, called bioremediation, involves the employment of bacteria and other live microorganisms to clean up oil spills. The microorganisms attack the toxic chemicals present in the oil and break them down into less harmful compounds like carbon dioxide and water (Science Clarified, 2009, para.3). For example, this technique was successfully employed in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Fertilizer mainly composed of nitrogen and phosphorus was spread over 120 kilometers of Alaska’s oily beach. The bacterial present in the fertilizer decomposed the oil at a 50 percent speedier pace (Science Clarified, 2009, para.5). This method, however, can only be used against crude oil spills because the oil is a natural mineral decomposable by microorganisms. If the spill involves crude oil derivatives like gasoline or kerosene which are man-made and not natural, microorganisms are unable to decompose them (Science Clarified, 2009, para.6&7).

Major global oil spills

The biggest oil spill in history took place during the Gulf War in 1992 when the Iraqi forces not only let out 1,900 million liters of crude oil into the Gulf Sea off the coast of Kuwait but also caused 115 billion liters of crude oil to be spilled on to Kuwaiti land {most of it was burned off} when they set ablaze to 500 oil wells (Science Clarified, 2009, para.11). The second-largest oil spill took place in June 1979 in Mexico when an oil well {Ixtoc 1} exploded off Ciudad del Carmen, spilling 530 million liters of oil into the Bay of Campeche (NOAA, para.8). The third-biggest oil spill occurred in March 1978 in France when the Amoco Cadiz ran aground off its Brittany coast, spilling 260 million liters of oil into the sea (NOAA, para.1). The fourth-biggest oil spill {which is the largest in U.S history} took place in March 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground off Alaska’s Bligh Reef, spilling 40.9 million liters of oil into the sea (NOAA, para.7). The fifth-biggest oil spill took place in December 1976 in the U.S when the Argo Merchant ran aground off Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island, spilling 29 million liters of oil into the sea (NOAA, para.3).

The sixth-biggest oil spill occurred in June 1990 in the U.S when the Megaborg burst into flames off Galveston, Texas, spilling 19.3 million liters of oil into the sea (NOAA, para.10). The seventh-biggest oil spill occurred in November 1979 in the Gulf of Mexico when the oil tanker Burmah Agate and the freighter Mimosa collided, resulting in the former spilling 9.8 million liters of oil into the sea (NOAA, para.6). The eighth-biggest oil spill took place in January 1990 in the U.S when an underwater pipeline at the Exxon Bayway refinery burst and spilled 2.15 million liters of oil into the Arthur Kill waterway between New Jersey and New York’s Staten Island (Burger, 1994, page 1). The ninth-largest oil spill occurred in August 1993 in the U.S when 3 ships – a freighter {Balsa 37} and two barges {Bouchard 155 and Ocean 255} collided in Florida’s Tampa Bay, spilling Bouchard 155’s cargo of 1.3 million liters of oil into the bay (NOAA, para.4). The tenth-largest oil spill took place in March 1990 in the U.S when the Cibro Savannah burst into flames in Linden, New Jersey, spilling 480,000 liters of oil into the sea (NOAA, para.5).


Oil spills will go on occurring as long as the world relies on oil and its derivatives (Fingas et al., 2001, page 19). The problem of oil spills should be tackled on two platforms: prevention and cure {clean up}.

Prevention should take place globally as well as nationally. In the case of the former, all nations should cooperate closely with the U.N by following its guidelines and periodical recommendations. The U.N recommendations contained in the OPRC is especially vital because by stringently monitoring oil tankers’ use of their ports, nations can help combat the menace of ships that make use of ‘flags of convenience’ while being registered in nations reputed for their lenient safety and taxation rules (Anderson, 2008, para.9). On a national footing, every nation should enact stringent legislation and strict operating codes to govern its oil and transportation sectors (Fingas et al., 2001, page 1).

Clean-up techniques for oil spills should be renovated to generate better results while new methods should also be invented. It is heartening to note that efforts are being made in both these directions with commendable results. Mechanical cleaning methods are being renovated. Scientists from the Norwegian Stiftelsen for industriell og teknisk forskning {SINTEF} are presently carrying out tests in Canada on oil skimmers to ascertain which of them are the most appropriate for scooping up various kinds of oil (Bjorken, para.11). SINTEF scientists are also experimenting with absorbents like cellulose and synthetic fabric to ascertain which of them absorb the maximum amount of oil (Bjorken, para.17). Another group of scientists from the Norwegian IKU Petroleum forskning a.s has not only invented new substances to clean up oil from coastal land (Bjorken, para.24), but they also are in the process of inventing a new variety of dispersants that are very efficient while also less toxic (Bjorken, para.19). The bioremediation method is being refined and expanded by SINTEF scientists. They have invented ways to commercially produce as well as dehydrate the oil dissolving microorganism’s primary involved in this method (Bjorken, para.3). They are also working on ways to produce the microorganisms as a powder that could be used to clean up oil spills on water and coastal lands (Bjorken, para.5).

It is hoped that the efforts of nations, combined with the efforts of scientists, will greatly reduce the menace of oil spills.


Anderson, D. (2008). Oil Spills. Web.

Bjorken, A.B. (N.d). New Weapons to Combat Oil Spills. Web.

Burger, J. (1994). Before and After an Oil Spill. USA: Rutgers.

10 Famous Spills. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Web.

Fingas, M. & Charles, J. (2001). The Basics of Oil Spill Cleanup. USA: CRC Press.

Oil Spills. (2009). Science Clarified. Web.