Damage from Oil Spills in Marine Waters

Nearly half of all oil spills into the ocean are from natural seepage, yet the media focuses on spills by the oil industry.

The oil industry goes to great lengths to prevent oil spills, yet accidents have happened.

The oil industry has four important reasons for preventing an oil spill:

  • Safety of employees: For example, eleven were killed in the fire that accompanied the Macondo oil spill.
  • Harm to animal and sea life.
  • Cost of oil lost. For example, the Macondo spill reportedly resulted in a loss of 4.9 million barrels of oil, worth $490 million at the time.
  • Negative public perceptions and the potential for civil and federal penalties and fines.

In short, it’s in the oil industry’s self interest to prevent oil spills.

The question remains: How much ecological damage is caused by an oil spill?

Here is the breakdown of the approximately 350 million gallons of oil entering the oceans each year:

  1. Natural seepages 47%
  2. Routine operations of tankers 24%
  3. Accidents from the transportation of oil by ship 13%
  4. Human activity on land 11%
  5. Production and exploration 3%.
  6. Other, jet skies, boating etc. 1%.
Oil spills from Oil in the Sea, by National Academy of Sciences
Oil spills in kilotons from Oil in the Sea, by National Academy of Sciences

Natural seepages are 15 times larger than spills from oil exploration and production. It’s entirely possible that a tar ball on a beach came from natural seepages.

The immediate effect of oil spills from accidents, either from tanker groundings or wrecks, such as the Exxon Valdez, or from exploration and production, such as the Macondo fire and spill, can be severe. Birds covered with black oil are a tragic scene.

But, what are the long term effects of these accidents?

It has been five years since the Macondo accident, yet it’s difficult to find evidence of long term damage.

The Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 260,000 barrels of oil in 1989, yet, after ten years the ecology had largely recovered.

Photos from NAS report showing recovery of shoreline. Upper left 1991, upper right 1993, lower left 1995, lower right 1997
Photos from NAS report showing recovery of shoreline.
Upper left 1991, upper right 1993, lower left 1995, lower right 1997

There is solid evidence that there are natural mechanisms for the elimination and mitigation of oil spilled into the ocean.

A good example of this is the Coal Oil Point seepage near Santa Barbara California. Every year, approximately 50,000 barrels of oil seeps into the ocean, yet natural forces, such as microbes who consume oil, eliminate or mitigate the effect of the spill.

There are over 600 areas in the Gulf of Mexico where oil seeps into the ocean. The same natural phenomena as off the coast of California eliminate and mitigate the negative effect of these seeps.

There are seeps along the Alaskan coast, including along the northern coast in Arctic waters.

Steps have been taken to prevent oil spills, such as the use of double-hulled tankers and new and better constructed blow-out preventers. Double hulls would not prevent a collision and sinking of tankers, of which the Atlantic Empress in 1979 is an example.

The Atlantic Empress resulted in an oil spill of nearly 2 million barrels of oil, or slightly less than half the size of the Macondo spill.

While no long-term scientific study was done after the sinking of the Atlantic Empress, there does not appear to have been any long-term damage.

Clearly, oil spills can cause considerable short-term harm, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are few, if any, long-term negative effects from oil spills.

Practical steps should be taken to lessen the likelihood of accidental oil spills, but it’s unreasonable, and not in our best interests, to allow fear of spills to stand in the way of exploration and production of oil anywhere in the world.

  • The source of the information on the amount of oil spilled worldwide is the National Academy of Sciences report at http://www.nap.edu/read/10388/chapter/3#24
  • The source of the distribution between activities is from a USNI article by Dr.Walsh, marine consultant.

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