Oil spills: when, where, how big?

Since the birth of the modern oil industry in the late 19th century, tens of millions of wells have been drilled, and upwards of 1.5 trillion barrels of oil have been extracted. That is enough oil to fill about 96 million Olympic-sized swimming pools! Onshore wells have been drilled in nearly every type of terrestrial ecosystem, and every continent except Antarctica has oil extraction in its coastal marine ecosystems.


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Oil is moved long distances by land and sea and goes through several conversion processes before it reaches your local gas station. This complex supply chain is prone to accidents and disasters that release crude and refined oil products into the environment. Oil contains toxic chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Spilled oil thus poses a significant health threat to all forms of life. They are very costly to clean up. 


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Some oil spills live in environmental infamy, rallying environmentalists and stimulating policy reform. Examples include the grounding of the Torrey Canyon tanker (1967) that soiled more than 170 miles of French and British coast, and the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969) from an offshore platform that helped launch the modern environmental movement in the United States. But a few massive accidents receive less attention. The Lakeview oil gusher (1910-1911) released 100,000 barrels of oil per day at its peak that created rivers and small lakes of oil for 18 months in Kern County, CA. The extraordinary environmental disaster during the Persian Gulf War (1991) stands out because it resulted from the weaponization of oil wells, oil terminals, and oil tankers by the Iraqi military that purposefully demolished that infrastructure.


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The oil tanker system has dramatically improved its safety record over the past 50 years, in part due to responses to the accidents described here. Today’s tankers have robust ship design codes that include double hulls, redundant systems, mandatory towing gear, and improved navigation systems, and they are subject to enhanced inspections and can be operated by a single deck officer in a crisis.


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Blockbuster disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon grab the headlines, but a steady stream of much smaller spills pose a significant, ongoing, and cumulative threat, especially in marine ecosystems. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported 172 incidents in 2021 in which oil products were released to the environment, ranging in size from 2 to 1,000,000 gallons1. These incidents involve both commercial (barges, fishing vessels) and recreational vessels. Satellite images of the ocean surface suggest that many additional spills are not reported and thus not measured.


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1 Emergency Response Division, Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://incidentnews.noaa.gov/, Accessed August 15, 2022

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