Sunday, 30 January 2011

Environmental Effects of World's Worst Oil Spill Disasters

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - United States Coast Guard
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill -United States Coast Guard
The looming ecological disaster from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill highlights the environmental damage caused by the world's worst oil spills.
A report carried by Associated Press on May 29, 2010, entitled “Gulf Coast Oil Spill Could Eclipse Exxon Valdez”, by Cain Bordeau and Holbrook Mohr states that, “The oil slick could become the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world's richest seafood grounds, teeming with shrimp, oysters and other marine life.” This oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico highlights the extreme environmental impacts that are likely to follow oil spill disasters.

1991 Gulf War Oil Spill

The definitive guide on oil spills, The Oil Spill Intelligence Report (OSIR), published weekly by Aspen Publishers lists the 1991 Gulf War oil spill as the largest in history. The article “After the Storm” by T. Canby and published in Volume 180 of National Geographic gives the details of the disaster:
  • Retreating Iraqi forces opened the oil valves on the Kuwaiti oil terminal on Sea Island in January 1991 and released over 400 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf.
  • The resultant oil slick reached a size of over 100 miles by 40 miles and was over 5 inches thick.
  • The oil slick moved south and came ashore on the north coast of Saudi Arabia.
  • The oil destroyed the shallow coastal water ecosystem, causing immense damage to the Saudi fishing industry.
The Ixtoc 1 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
OSIR lists the Ixtoc 1 oil spill as the second largest in history. Oil Spill Case Histories 1967 – 1991 by the Hazardous Materials Response and Assessment Division and published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in September 1991 highlights the details of this disaster:
  • A blowout on the Mexican offshore oil drill, Ixtoc 1 on June 3, 1979 began releasing oil at the rate of 10,000 – 30,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • The leakage of oil into the Gulf of Mexico continued for a further 10 months before it was finally capped on March 23, 1980.
  • After 3 months virtually the entire south Texas coast, with its delicate ecosystems had been impacted by the oil spill.
  • Bird species, such as Royal Terns, Sanderlings, Blue-faced Boobies, Willets, Black-bellied Plovers, Piping Plovers, and Snowy Plovers suffered the worst environmental damage.
  • The oil also came ashore in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas where thousands of babies of rare sea turtles had to be airlifted to safety.
  • The Mexican government refused to compensate the United States for the considerable cost of the clean up.
The Torrey Canyon Oil Spill
The first major disaster involving an oil tanker was the Torrey Canyon in 1967. The Torrey Canyon Pollution and Marine Life edited by J.E. Smith and published by the Cambridge University Press in 1968 lists the details of this disaster:
  • On March 18, 1967 the Torrey Canyon oil tanker, carrying 120,000 tons of crude oil from the Persian Gulf to the UK ran aground off Land’s End.
  • Over 120 miles of British and 50 miles of French coastline were contaminated by oil.
  • Over 15,000 seabirds were killed.
  • Huge numbers of marine organisms were destroyed by the over 250 square miles of oil slick.
  • The first generation oil dispersants used to treat the oil slick caused as much environmental damage as the oil itself.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Until the present Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest in the United States. As Exxon Valdez 18 Years and Counting, by Kellie Kvasnikoff and published by Lulu Press in 2007 explained, although the volume of oil spilled was small in comparison to the world’s largest oil spills, the ensuing environmental damage was huge.
  • The Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, releasing 250,000 barrels of oil.
  • 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters and 300 harbor seals were killed immediately.
  • The populations of over 25 species devastated by the oil spill had not recovered 18 years after the disaster.
  • The author notes that 18 years after the event, "Some 1,200 miles of shore line is still covered in oil with an estimated 26,000 gallons of fresh oil that remain buried under the shoreline."
Although oil extraction is not the major source of marine oil pollution, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill looks like becoming one of the world’s worst oil spill disasters. It shows that climate change is not the only looming man made environmental disaster and that the environmental legacy of oil could be every bit as bad as the disastrous environmental legacy of coal.
Copyright Laurence O'Sullivan. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.