In 1991, the Hubble Telescope launched, the civil war in Cambodia ended, and free elections in Taiwan commenced. However, 1991 is also known for the infamous Persian Gulf oil spill, where somewhere between 380 million and 580 million gallons of oil were deliberately spilled by Saddam Hussein. The oil slick that was created was 101 miles long by 42 miles wide creating a total of 4,242 square miles of oil. In some places, the slick was five inches thick (Cheremisinoff & Davletshi, 2010). This spill is the largest recorded oil spill in history as well as one of the largest acts of ecoterrorism ever committed, and because of the Gulf War and its aftermath, it was not cleaned up in a timely manner. Although most of the floating oil was cleaned up within months of the disaster, that does not take into account the likelihood that hundreds of millions of barrels of oil soaked into the Earth between January and November of 1991 (Barber, 2018).
Although that incident was the largest oil spill in history, thousands of oil spills happen in US waters alone every year, and even though most are small and only spill less than a barrel of oil (Office of Response and Restoration, 2017), even spills that small are severe: an oil spill of less than a quart can create an oil slick that stretches for two acres (Schutes, 2015). Because of the frequency and occasional scale of these spills, they have had adverse effects on all of the Earth, and not just underwater ecosystems. Since nearly all organisms rely on water to survive, if a large body of water is covered in oil, organisms on the surrounding land cannot thrive either. Petroleum hydrocarbons, which are found in oil, are toxic to all forms of life and can kill many organisms. This toxicity can manifest in many ways. For example, adult fish can experience reduced growth, fin erosion, changes in heart and respiration rates, reproduction impairment, and more. Additionally, young sea animals, most namely sea turtles, can mistake spilled oil for food, and ingesting it can be seriously harmful or deadly (NOAA, 2020). The Persian Gulf oil spill likely harmed or killed over 114,000 animals, including 102 species of birds, sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, and whales. This number does not take into account the number of fish killed due to this incident (Center for Biological Diversity, 2011).
Oil spills also have considerable effects on the economy of the metropolitan areas surrounding the site of an oil spill, especially in regards to tourism and fishing. Spilt oil can disrupt recreational activities, such as swimming, fishing, snorkeling, and boating (ITOPF, 2018) In fact, after the Ixtoc 1 oil spill in 1979, oil washing up on shore of previously pristine beaches in Mexico caused the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue for up to five years following the disaster (Rafferty, n.d.). Additionally, many communities, specifically those that depend on local fishing and mariculture, suffer when they cannot use fishing as a source for food and income. The natural consequences are clear: people can go hungry, stocks can fall, and local businesses can lose income and customers.
In response to this high rate of oil spills, many organizations have been formed to prevent oil spills, one of which is Skytruth. Skytruth uses satellite imagery of Earth to detect oil spills and break the news of their existence and severity to the public. In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill became the second largest oil spill in history; however, BP did not accurately report its seriousness or consequences. Skytruth challenged BP’s report and found that the rate of flow of the oil was twenty-five times more than BP was reporting. Since then, Skytruth has used their images of the Earth to inspire people to care about conservation, to report on environmental events, and to prove the need for change to benefit the environment (Skytruth, n.d.). For example, in June of 2020, Skytruth was involved in a negotiation that resulted in ExxonMobil significantly dialing back its oil production off the coast of Guyana (Guyana Times, 2020).
One method that is used to minimize the impacts of oil spills is having easy ways to clean them up. In the United States, oil spills are usually cleaned up by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Coast Guard. Some of the most common methods used are booming, using skimmers, in situ burning, and dispersants. Booming is a process that contains an oil spill by putting a partition in water separating the oil from cleaner water so that other methods can be used to remove the oil. Skimming is removing oil that is floating on the top of water, which is usually kept in a boom so that it does not float away. It is usually used as a first attempt to remove oil, before it reaches coastlines and damages the land, and then other methods can be used later on. In situ burning is done by isolating a patch of oil that has been spilled so that it does not get out of hand, and then burning it while it is in the water. Lastly, dispersants are chemicals, usually dropped from aircrafts, that will break down the oil particles so it can mix with the water. Clearly, none of these methods are perfect, they can all only be used in certain conditions, but usually a mix of them and possibly other ideas will do the trick.
While these methods of cleaning up oil are helpful, more effort is needed even after oil has been removed from water. Damage is done to the organisms in and around bodies of water that cannot be solved simply by removing oil from the water because animals can become coated in oil or they can ingest it, which can seriously harm their bodily functions and affect their range of motion, causing them to become trapped in the oily water. Oil can also kill aquatic plants and plants surrounding a body of water, so when there is a major oil spill or one that is not cleaned up for a long period of time, the people who clean up the spill will likely have to plant new things to restore the biodiversity of the area. This step is vital to cleaning up oil spills because the loss of even one species in an ecosystem can set off a chain reaction in the food web and cause all organisms living nearby to suffer.
Despite efforts to prevent and clean up oil spills, petroleum products continue to be extremely harmful to the environment and economy and to dominate the energy market. In response, scientists have been exerting efforts to develop alternative forms of energy that are renewable, affordable, and safer than oil. Knittel (2012) presents the possibility of using crops such as corn, soybeans, sugar, and grasses as possible alternatives to make ethanol to fuel vehicles used for transportation. These components used to make fuel are known as biofuels. Biofuels have the potential to lower carbon emissions as well as make petroleum use less necessary. However, biofuels come with their own set of issues, including land and water scarcity. Additionally, making the raw ingredients into ethanol can be difficult and time consuming, and not very much usable ethanol comes from a large crop harvest. However, biofuels may still play an important role in reducing greenhouse gases and reducing the amount of oil used, which prevents oil spills (Knittel, 2012). Ross (2020) also suggested the use of solar power, wind power, and nuclear energy to replace petroleum, but, as with biofuels, they have obstacles. Solar power and wind power are considered unreliable and often require backup from oil to keep electricity in a building running. Although nuclear energy is abundant, the mining of uranium and the process of making it usable is extremely dangerous. These setbacks mean that they will not be able to single handedly replace oil completely either (Ross, 2020).
While each of these alternatives on their own will only play a small role in reducing oil usage, when put together they can make a big difference and reduce the impacts of oil spills significantly. Although the world has a long way to go before completely eliminating the impacts of oil spills, efforts made thus far by individuals and companies have made a difference, and future efforts will continue to help this issue as time goes on.
Barber, N. (2018, November 23). 1991 Gulf War Oil Spill. Retrieved from http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2018/ph240/barber1/
Center for Biological Diversity. (2011). A Deadly Toll: The Gulf Oil Spill and the Unfolding Wildlife Disaster. Retrieved from https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/dirty_energy_development/oil_and_gas/gulf_oil_spill/pdfs/GulfWildlifeReport_2011.pdf
Cheremisinoff, N. P., Davletshi, A. (2010). Emergency Response Management of Offshore Oil Spills. Wiley Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/v2hgPGwYNvoC?hl=en&gbpv=0
Chow, D. (2010). How are oil spills cleaned? Live Science. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/32524-how-are-oil-spills-cleaned.html#:~:text=In%20the%20United%20States%2C%20the,the%20surface%20of%20the%20water.
Guyana Times. (2020, June 16). ExxonMobil cuts back on offshore oil production to reduce flaring. Guyana Times. Retrieved from https://guyanatimesgy.com/exxonmobil-cuts-back-on-offshore-oil-production-to-reduce-flaring/.
International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. (2018). Economic effects. Retrieved from https://www.itopf.org/knowledge-resources/documents-guides/economic-effects/
Knittel, C. K. (2012). Reducing petroleum consumption from transportation. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 26(1), 93-118. Retrieved from https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.26.1.93
Leslie, J. (2016). Eyes in the sky: Green groups are harvesting data from space. Yale e360. Retrieved from https://e360.yale.edu/features/eyes_in_the_sky_green_groups_are_harnessing_data_from_space.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (n.d.). How does oil impact marine life? Retrieved from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oilimpacts.html.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2019). How do spills happen? Retrieved from https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/training-and-education/education-students-and-teachers/how-do-spills-happen.html.
Office of Response and Restoration. (2017, April 5). Largest Oil Spills Affecting U.S. Waters Since 1969. Retrieved from https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/oil-and-chemical-spills/oil-spills/largest-oil-spills-affecting-us-waters-1969.html
Rafferty, J. P. (n.d.). 9 of the biggest oil spills in history. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/list/9-of-the-biggest-oil-spills-in-history.
Ross, S. (2020, April 5). What are the main substitutes for oil and gas energy? Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/060415/what-are-main-substitutes-oil-and-gas-energy.asp
Saadoun, I.M.K. (2015). Impact of oil spills on marine life. In M.L. Larramendy, & S Solonesky (Eds.), Emerging Pollutants in the Environment- Current and Further Implications (pp. 75-103). IntechOpen Publishing. https://doi.org/10.5772/60455
Schutes, A. (2015, May 5). When it comes to oil and fuel spills, prevention is the best solution. The Ocean Conservancy. Retrieved from https://oceanconservancy.org/blog/2015/05/05/when-it-comes-to-oil-and-fuel-spills-prevention-is-the-best-solution/
Skytruth. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from https://skytruth.org/about/