What is an oil spill?
Although oil is a naturally-occurring substance which sometimes seeps out of the ground as a result of natural causes, it creates ecological havoc when it is released in large quantities into a vulnerable, unsuspecting environment. Oil spills occur when petroleum leaks from broken pipelines which conduct the oil either on land or on the seabed, oil tankers which break up at sea, or from land-based oil wells or offshore platforms, also known as rigs.
Surprisingly, land-based oil wells are responsible for most oil-related pollution in the world but the media has tended to focus on the damage caused by oil spills at sea. Perhaps for this reason disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon will be engraved on the public memory for a long time to come.
What are the effects of an oil spill?
The damage caused by an oil spill is difficult to quantify. Not only is the natural world affected but also people’s livelihoods, their jobs, the local fishing industry, the tourist industry in the region, etc. The list goes on. Some damage is immediately visible, some is longer-term. Perhaps one of the most poignant images chosen by journalists is that of the struggling, oil-covered bird. Some estimates indicate that fewer than one in a hundred birds covered in oil survives the ordeal, even if they are lucky enough to be cleaned by volunteers. The oil damages the bird’s feathers which makes it less able to fly away from danger, float on water, or forage for food. Birds that try to clean themselves end up digesting the oil, which poisons them.
How do we mop it up?
There are various clean-up methods, none of them totally successful:
- The biological or bacterial approaches use microorganisms or biological agents which are able to deal with the oil at molecular level, enabling components of the oil to biodegrade quickly.
- Detergents can be useful to disperse surface oil. This enables the oil to gradually sink to the seabed. However, the disadvantage is that the seabed is poisoned by this process. Another point to take into consideration is that not only is the oil poisonous but the detergents themselves may contaminate delicate marine life such as coral.
- Controlled burning efficiently reduces the size of an oil spill but is not a method that can be used in all cases. Windy conditions are not suitable, for example. This approach can also cause air pollution.
- Collecting or recovering the oil and taking it away is a huge challenge affected by many things including what type of oil was spilled, how warm or cold the sea is and whether the disaster occurred far out to sea or near land. It involves carefully collecting the oil from the surface of the water using large floating barriers, called booms, skimmers and even vacuums to suck up the oil. This is extremely labour intensive and can only be carried out in very calm water.
Given the disastrous consequences of an oil spill perhaps it would be better to concentrate on ways of preventing them happening in the first place. It has been suggested that all oil tankers should have double hulls, for example. Others believe that we should simply reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and start investing in alternative sources of energy.
See also: What is the best way to clean up a major oil spill at sea?
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. Although oil is a naturally-occurring substance which sometimes seeps out of the ground as a result of natural causes, it creates __________ havoc when it is released in large quantities into a vulnerable, unsuspecting environment.
2. Oil spills occur when petroleum __________ from broken pipelines conducting the oil either on land or on the seabed, oil tankers which break up at sea, or from land-based oil wells or offshore platforms, also known as rigs.
3. Perhaps one of the most __________ images chosen by journalists is that of the struggling, oil-covered bird.
4. Some estimates indicate that fewer than one in a hundred birds covered in oil survives the __________.
5. There are various clean-up methods, none of them __________ successful.
6. Collecting or __________ the oil and taking it away is a huge challenge affected by many things.