Offshore InjuryBlog

How Oil Spills Affect the Ocean

It is estimated that 706 million gallons of waste oil enter the ocean on a yearly basis. While offshore drilling, spills, and leaks only contribute around 8% of this, they still result in millions of gallons. Oil spills can happen for a number of reasons, from offshore drilling accidents to vessel accidents.

When oil spills into the ocean, it will spread into the water, primarily resting on the surface. The force of waves, currents, and wind can cause this oil slick to drift over large areas. The oil can cause damage to the open ocean, surrounding coastal areas, and even marine habitats and environments. Oil can destroy the water repellency of bird’s feathers, hinder the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, and damage the hearts / cause fin erosion in fish. From dolphins and whales to sea turtles and birds, oil spills can have negative effects on all types of wildlife.

There are also long-term issues that result from oil washing up on shore and polluting water sources. Overall, the damage that oil spills bring can depend on the oil’s composition and properties, as well as the volume of oil that is spilt. No matter what, any type of oil spill can bring about devastating damage to the ocean environment.

What Leads to Oil Spills?

One of the most damaging oil spills in recent years was the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This spill seriously damaged the ecosystem all along the U.S. Gulf Coast. As most oil spills happen on the surface of the ocean, the spill remains there for some time. However, this offshore drilling accident began at the ocean floor and rose up to the surface. Oil spills like this can damage the marine environment at every level.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled approximately 210 million gallons of oil into the gulf—making it the second largest oil spill in history. What led to this serious oil spill? Numerous flaws led to the oil rig blowout, resulting in several deaths, injuries, and severe environmental damage.

Other common causes of oil spills:

  • Equipment breaking down
  • Natural disasters
  • Careless mistakes or negligence
  • Illegal dumpers

The Challenges of Cleaning Up Oil Spills

Cleaning up an oil spill can be extremely challenging. In many cases, even a fast response to an oil spill cannot prevent serious damage to the ocean and marine life. Clean up methods will depend on a number of different factors—such as the characteristics of the oil. In order to prevent further pollution, containment and removal of the oil can be done through skimming, filtering, or other methods. From there, it will need to be dispersed into small droplets, biodegraded, or allowed to pass through weathering processes. In some cases, animals may be rescued and cleaned before being released back into the wild. However, smaller species are often not helped due to limited resources and the challenges of reaching them.

Preventing Spills in the Ocean

Some believed that complacency at the Deep Water Horizon rig led to the disaster. One of the ways that oil rig spills can be prevented is for employers to enforce stricter and stronger standards. When oil drilling workers make mistakes, they can be deadly and destructive. 

25 years ago, the U.S. Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This act was designed to help strengthen oil spill prevention and improve planning and response efforts. The responsibility for oil spills can fall on individuals, corporations, companies, and industries.

While oil rig companies can improve safety and maintenance standards to help prevent spills, the U.S. government has taken stronger measures to try to prevent such disasters from occurring. The main method they have used is enforcing heavy financial penalties. For example, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they had to pay $5.5 billion for violations of the Clean Water Act, which was created in 1977 to govern water pollution. They also had to pay $700 million for injuries and losses related to the oil spill. This brought their total fine for the explosion and spill to more than $54 billion.

No matter the size of the spill or type of oil, any unnatural spill can bring about devastating damage to the ocean environment.

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