Environmental Impacts of Oil Spills

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Oils spills are defined as the release1 of any type of oil that contaminates numerous environments including, land, air and water but primarily affect the ocean. Oil spills are caused by human error, natural disasters, and equipment breaking. Over 100 million gallons of oil is spilled every year causing destruction to animals, habitats and humans. The majority of oil spills take place in bays, rivers, oceans, wetlands and other bodies of water. When oil is transported via ships and tankers2, oil spills are most likely occur because the oil is carried through tanks, flowlines and underwater pipelines which frequently leads to accidents.

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Oil is important for the economy but frequently leads to spills that are not worth killing countless lives of animals and destroying the Earth. There needs to be further actions that are taken to help the damage of the environment, the habitats and lives of animals after oil spills.

Oil, also known as petroleum or crude is a dense substance composed of hydrocarbon molecules3. The thickness of the oil depends on the combination of the hydrogen and carbon atoms and contains traces of nitrogen, sulfur and oxygen. The oil used today was formed millions of years ago from remains of plants and dead marine organisms that were buried under several layers of sediment. When these substances were under heat and pressure they convert into oil. Oil is more modernly known as a fossil fuels which are all composed of once living organisms4. Geologists locate reservoirs that contain oil and inform the extractors where the wells are and they can drill oil from them. The oil is transported by train, ship, pipeline and truck which is later transformed into petroleum products such as gasoline, asphalt, diesel, fuel and jet fuel5. The oil is used to transport vehicles such as planes and cars and for production of artificial products. For example, the fabrication of plastic6, medicines, and other materialistic products are made from oil. Oil does benefit humans and creates a superfluous of jobs but, has its disadvantages when it is spilled. When oil spills, it becomes smooth and spreads on the surface of the water, forming a slick. These slicks immediately affect the animals in these environments and affect our society by having lower amounts of food. The most destructive oil spills are the Exxon Valdez spill, BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, and the Amoco Cadiz spill. More than 80,000 birds were killed from BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill due to oil coating of their feathers causing them to die from hypothermia. Around $691 million7 of the economy has been lost due to this spill.

Oil spills are given the title of ‘worst’ from the number of barrels that are spilled. On March 24, 1989, 11 million gallons of crude oil discharged into the Prince William Sound after a collision to the ship’s hull8. This is primarily known as the Exxon Valdez Oil spill. This was one of the world’s most devastating oil spills prior to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill and had 1,300 meters of coastline covered in oil. The spill was investigated and was later learned that the collision only happened because the captain, Joseph Hazelwood had been drinking. Exxon accepted their accountability and paid $2 billion for cleanup and $1.6 billion for wildlife rehabilitation. It was estimated that 270,000-580,0009 seabirds were killed; 3,000 otters were killed; 300 seals killed; 250 bald eagles dead; 22 killer whales killed and billions of salmon eggs destroyed causing the fish industry in this area to collapse and fishermen to go bankrupt. The way to limit this from happening again is to have reliable people lead. On the morning of March 16, 1978, the tanker Amoco Cadiz faced technical difficulties during a storm and crashed off the coast of the English Channel. The tanker split an estimated amount of 29 million gallons of crude and spread 130 km away from the initial spill. The cleaning process took months and is still not completely cleaned to this day. It was believed that ?…“ of the oil made it too shore leaving the rest to have evaporated or be lost in sea. An abundant amount of fish, birds, sea urchins, clams and mollusks were killed. Some of the oil contaminated and destroyed the agricultural crops in the area which affected what people could eat. The way to limit this from happening is to have stronger technology that can withstand strong weather conditions.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico spilling around 205 million gallons of crude oil and unfortunately took the lives of 11 workers. Methane gas escaped the well and traveled to the surface causing an explosion and a fire that lasted days. Over the course of a few months, the oil spreaded and formed a slick 5,000 square miles11 long. On July 15, 2010 the well was successfully sealed and eliminated more releases of oil. Approximately 6,000 sea turtles; 80,000 birds; 29,000 marine animals including dolphins and whales; and unknown amount of zooplankton was harmed. More than 1,000 miles12 of coastline was destroyed due to the oil slicks. This costed the fishing industry in the Gulf $115 to $172 million. Although people work hard to limit the amount of oil in the ocean after oil spills, there are still millions of gallons of oil floating around that is affecting the environment.

The wildlife is immediately impacted from the contact of the oil particles, by consuming the poisonous water due or inhaling dispersants13 when response teams help clean oil off of the animals. When marine animals ingest infected food, their ability to reproduce is in danger, their organs are susceptible to damage and they are likely to receive ulcers, internal bleeding and hemorrhages. If the animals lay eggs, their eggs are in danger of absorption of oil as well. Animals with feathers and fur, for example birds and sea otters, risk death when oil comes contact with their coating because the oil prevents circulation and movement of their feathers and fur which leads them to not be able to be insulated and risk hypothermia. When birds are covered in oil they also lose their buoyancy14 and can not stay afloat. When there is oil in the water, dolphins and whales inhale the water when they swim up to the surface to breathe air. Sea turtles suffer and suffocate when they try to breathe and as juveniles may become trapped in the oil after they hatch. Sea turtles can get poisoned by absorption from the skin or by ingesting the contaminated food and there can be serious damage to their eyes and irritation to their lungs and airways. Oil spills do not only suddenly influence the animals but over time, they have to relocate to find more food as the sources are limited. The food cycle switches because the feeders consume oil making the consumers sick and then us humans can not fish the animals and creates a vicious cycle that affects everyone.

Not only are the animals impacted by oil spills but their habitats and homes are greatly affected. Coral reefs are home to various ecosystems and are very sensitive especially to oil spills. If the oil reaches the coast and beaches, it can get on the rocks which prohibits people from going to those locations. The oil might reach the ocean floor and can stay there for years. The ocean floor is home to phytoplankton and other algae that produces a huge portion of the world’s oxygen. Oyster beds are not able to reproduce at a faster rate after they are covered in oil. When oil reaches estuaries and marshes, adolescent fishes homes’ are threatened because the oil kills the plants in the area and the eggs are harmed as well. Some vegetation15 may die which will affect the animals eating the plants and people who eat those animals.

The particles also affect us humans and the rescue teams when trying to help clean the water and help the animals that are also suffering. Just like the sea turtles, if we come in contact with the oil or inhale particles of oil, our skin burns and we get sick. Humans can not eat seafood that may have parts of oil in them or else we will get sick as well. The agriculture suffers in places where oil slicks move close to where crops are typically growing. This affects the farmers jobs and the wealth of the economy. The fishing industry loses a ton of money everytime there is an oil spill because many animals either die or are too dangerous to be consumed due to be contaminated with oil. It takes a few months16 for the FDA to approve when fishermen can go back to fishing. The shipped goods industry and the fuel industry are important but are typically the the ships that have oil spills. The rescue teams use detergents that have properties that are able break oil.

Oil spills impact animals by harming their bodies, their homes, people’s food and jobs, the ocean and other habitats. They lead to problems for animals when their coatings become covered in oil, their organs break down and ultimately die. Humans are impacted through their skin when they come in contact with oil and can get sick by consuming water or seafood that have oil particles inside them. Oil spills can affect the economy when agriculture is ruined and when animals that are fished, die prohibiting humans from obtaining food. The Earth’s habitats take years to recover from the oil that ruins the environments. It is unfortunate that all of these lives are lost because of the transportation of oil and other commercialization purposes. The Exxon Valdez spill, the Amoco Cadiz and BP’s Deepwater Horizon Spill were some of the largest spills with big impacts on the animal life. The Exxon spill could have been completely avoided if it weren’t for human error. The Amoco Cadiz and BP spill taught people to strengthen the technology so it can withstand weather conditions. Perhaps, we ban oil rigs in the ocean to prevent further tragedies and eliminate this issue.

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Environmental Impacts of Oil Spills. (2020, Feb 27). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/environmental-impacts-of-oil-spills/