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Oil in myriad forms has been used for hundreds of purposes for at least six thousand years. Oil spills occur naturally and as a result of oil exploration, transportation, and processing. Several disasters have led to more stringent environmental standards, such as double-hulled ships. The drilling-platform explosion and subsequent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 has brought renewed global attention to the dangers of oil spills.
Oil is a main source of energy. Because it is unevenly distributed in the world, it must be transported on the seas and in pipelines to distant lands. Although the major oil transport and transfer activities occur on the seas, ports, and rivers, they are not limited to these areas. Accidental spills can occur wherever oil is drilled, stored, handled, refined, transported, and transferred. These spills can be either massive and catastrophic or chronic. Few other environmental problems are as common or ubiquitous or have the potential for immediate environmental damage and long-range effects. Recent or dramatic oil spills include those involving the ships Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez, and Sea Empress, and the massive intentional oil spills during the Gulf War. As this encyclopedia goes to press, an oil spill resulting from the explosion of the British Petroleum drilling platform Deepwater Horizon is still flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from 64 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of Louisiana; it is considered to be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Crude petroleum or oil is a liquid or semiliquid mixture of hydrocarbon compounds that contains sulfur, oxygen, nitrogen, other elements, and metals. The hydrocarbons are the decayed remains of small marine animals and plants that flourished in the shallow inland seas that once covered large areas of the continents. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the dead remains of these tiny organisms drifted to the sea bottom. Covered by mud, this organic matter changed into the complicated hydrocarbons we call petroleum. For the past 600 million years, incompletely decayed plant and animal remains were buried under thick layers of rock, often accumulating one layer at a time. Because petroleum, natural gas, and coal formed from organisms that lived millions of years ago, they are called fossil fuels.
Since the Paleozoic era (from 570 to 245 million years ago), this organic matter has been slowly moving to more porous and permeable rocks, such as sandstone and siltstones, where it was trapped. The oil accumulates because of the presence of impermeable rock lying over these reservoirs. Some oil fields extend laterally in the rock over several kilometers and may be several hundred meters deep. Some oil enters the oceans through natural seeps, and these natural oil spills can have massive effects on the organisms living nearby.
Some of the hydrocarbon products of petroleum include dissolved natural gas, gasoline, benzene, naphtha, kerosene, diesel fuel and light heating oils, heavy heating oils, and tars of various weights. Petroleum yields these products through elaborate refining processes. They are then further refined and combined into other products such as solvents, paints, asphalt, plastics, synthetic rubber, fibers, soaps and cleansing agents, waxes and jellies, medicines, explosives, and fertilizers. Oil spills can occur during the refining process or during transport.
History of Small Oil Spills
For over six thousand years people have used asphalt, pitch (bitumen), and liquid oil in numerous and ingenious ways. People living in river valleys of ancient Mesopotamia used local asphalt from hand-dug pits as building cement and caulking for boats. The legend of the flood described in the Book of Genesis records that the ark was well caulked. Nile River boats were caulked with asphalt, and the infant Moses was cradled in a raft of bulrushes “daubed with pitch” when he was set adrift. The Elamites, Chaldeans, Akkadians, and Sumerians mined shallow deposits of oil-derived pitch or asphalt to export to Egypt to preserve the mummies of great kings and queens and to make mosaics to adorn their coffins. (Ancient Egyptians used liquid oil as a purgative and wound dressing, since it aided the healing process and kept wounds clean.) Archeological remains in Khuzestan, Iran, show that asphalt was commonly used for bonding and jewel setting during the Sumerian epoch (4000 BCE). Asphalt served as cement in the Tower of Babel and in the walls and columns of early Babylonian temples. As early as 600 BCE the Babylonians set clay cones and tiny semiprecious stones in bitumen to form elaborate mosaics.
Soon fossil fuels were recognized for their light-giving properties: according to the Greek biographer Plutarch, in about 331 BCE Alexander the Great was impressed by the sight of a continuous flame issuing from the Earth in Kirkuk, Iraq, probably a natural gas seep set ablaze. The Romans used oil lamps in the first century BCE. The Chinese first used oil as a fuel around 200 CE, employing pulleys and hand labor to suction the oil from the ground through pipes. Oil spills resulting from these uses were small and limited in scope.
Oil was quickly adopted for military purposes, especially naval skirmishes, which resulted in larger spills. Oil-filled trenches were set aflame to defend cities in ancient times. The Persians developed the first distilling processes to obtain flammable products for use in battle, catapulting arrows wrapped in oil-soaked cloths toward their Greek enemies during the siege of Athens in 480 BCE. At close range, what eventually became known as Greek fire was propelled through tubes onto Persian ships attacking Constantinople in 673 CE, resulting in the Greek’s near destruction of the fleet. The Byzantines used liquid fire against the Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries; thrown onto enemy ships from pots or tubes, liquid fire (probably some combination of oil, naptha, and chemical substances such as sulfur and quicklime), caused extensive damage and terror. (The exact “recipe” remains unknown, but historians believe it was passed down from emperor to emperor.) The Saracens used Greek fire against St. Louis at the crusades, and the Knights of St. John used it against the invading Turks at Malta. The Mongols also burned petroleum products in their siege of Central Asia. Bukhara in western Asia fell in 1220 because Chinggis (Genghis) Khan threw pots full of naphtha and fire at the gates of the castle, and it burst into flame. People were forced to flee the city or else die.
During the Renaissance, the transport of oil developed, leading to more significant oil spills in the wake of trade. In 1726 Peter the Great of Russia issued ordinances regulating the transport of oil from Baku on the Caspian Sea, by boat, up the Volga River. Oil became a valued commodity to barter, trade, or steal. In the New World, the natives of Venezuela caulked boats and hand-woven baskets with asphalt, and liquid oil was used for medicine and lighting. Native North Americans used oil in magic, medicines, and paints. The first barrel of Venezuelan oil was exported to Spain in 1539 to alleviate the gout of Emperor Charles V.
The modern era of oil transportation began in 1820 when a small-bore lead pipe was used to transport natural gas from a seep near Fredonia, New York, to nearby consumers, including the local hotel. From this time on, the possibility of oil spills due directly to transport and transfer increased with the decades.
The Modern Oil Spill Era
The majority of known oil reserves are in the Middle East, followed by North America. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has the greatest reserves, with Saudi Arabia leading the member nations. The global distribution of oil deposits influences production and transport patterns and thereby determines the potential distribution of oil spills. World oil production rose from 450 million metric tons in 1950 to 2.7 billion metric tons by 1996 and continues to rise slowly. Oil spills rise along with production.
The primary method of transportation of oil is by oil tanker, and traditional shipping lanes have developed between the oil-producing countries and the oil-importing countries. At present, major oil routes go from the Middle East to Japan, Europe, and the United States. Oil is also transported through pipes over vast distances to refineries. Oil spills occur mainly along these oceanic and land routes and along the shores where oil transfers take place. Small spills occur during the transfer of oil from tanker to tanker, from tanker to refinery, from damaged, underground pipes, and around oil refineries and storage facilities. About 7.56 billion liters of oil enter the oceans from spills and other accidents each year.
Large spills usually occur during tanker accidents. With the increase in the size of oil tankers, the potential for accidents has increased. The tankers of the 1880s had a capacity of 3,000 metric tons, compared to 16,500 in 1945, 115,000 in 1962, and 517,000 in 1977. In the modern era of tankers, considered to be post-1989 and the Exxon Valdez disaster, tankers are commonly classified by size and the sea lanes they travel: Panamax and Suezmax tankers, for instance, are the largest crude carriers that will “fit” through the Panama and Suez canals, respectively. Recent requirements and conventions, such as the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, dictate that only double-hulled ships can ply international waters; this should decrease the number of tanker spills in the future, although not all regulations and conventions are legally binding. Oil spill–susceptible single-hulled ships are due to be taken out of service worldwide by 2010, although it remains to be seen whether this will happen or not.
Although the large oil spills receive media attention, only about 4 percent of oil entering the oceans comes from tanker accidents. Another 25 percent enters from tanker operations, 14 percent from other transport accidents, and 34 percent from rivers and estuaries. About 11 percent of the oil entering the oceans comes from natural seeps.
Since 1978 there has been a steady increase in the number of small spills, whereas the number of large spills has remained relatively constant. One to three spills of over 38 million liters happen each year. One or two catastrophic accidents in any given year can substantially increase the amount of oil spilled onto the land and into the oceans. The small spills of less than 378,000 liters apiece add up to about 38 million liters a year worldwide. Even without major disasters, large quantities of oil spill into marine and inland habitats.
The largest spill on record dumped 907 million liters into the Persian Gulf in 1991 as Iraqi forces sabotaged hundreds of wells, oil terminals, and tankers when they withdrew from their position in Kuwait during the Gulf War, but most spills are smaller. The 1970s were the worst decade on record in terms of both numbers of oil spills and quantities of oil spilled, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF). Other large spills have included the oil well Ixtoc-1 in Mexico (529 million liters, 1979), Norwruz Field in Arabia (302 million liters, 1980), Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan (302 million liters, 1992), Castillo de Bellver off South Africa (294 million liters, 1983), and the Amoco Cadiz off France (257 million liters, 1978). All other spills were less than 189 million liters each. The Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 in Alaska was twenty-eighth on the list, with 41 million liters, although the spill was particularly devastating because of the fragile nature of the affected sub-Arctic ecosystem. Because the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill is not yet fully contained at this writing, nearly three months after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform— and because the estimates of how much oil spilled per day varied so dramatically, depending on the source—determining its place in this world hierarchy is premature. According to Kayvan Farzaneh, writing in the 30 April 2010 issue of Foreign Policy, the Gulf spill would clearly dwarf the Exxon Valdez disaster, however, based on average estimates of 5,000 barrels spilled a day for 90 days, or about 75 million liters.
Effects of Oil Spills
Animals and plants and the nonliving parts of ecosystems are not equally vulnerable to oil spills. Some plants are fragile and have narrow habitat ranges, and they grow only in isolated sites. Some animals are very specialized, living in only a few places or eating only a few kinds of foods. Such species are particularly vulnerable to even small oil spills. Plants and animals in Arctic environments are fragile because of the limited growing season, limited diversity, and slow decay of the oil itself.
Other species are generalists, with wide tolerances for different environmental conditions, broad food requirements, and large geographical distributions. Such animals and plants are very adaptable and often can recover quickly from an oil spill, although the initial death toll may be high. Still other animals, such as some birds, fish, and mammals, can move away from a spill if its spread is slow.
Factors that determine whether an oil spill has devastating effects on plants and animals include size of the spill, type of oil, time of the spill (particularly in relation to the lifecycle of the organisms), vulnerability of particular plants and animals, and the vulnerability of particular ecosystems. Location of a spill can determine effects. In spills in intertidal marshes or estuaries where there is little tidal flow, there is a reduced opportunity for the oil to be carried out to sea, where dilution can blunt the effects. Oil often concentrates at the edge of marshes where there is also a high concentration of invertebrates, young fish, and foraging birds. Many invertebrates do not have the ability to move or move only very short distances, making them particularly vulnerable to oil.
The timing of a spill is critical. A spill that occurs during the migratory season of birds, fish, or mammals may result in unusually high exposure of vast numbers of animals. A spill during the spawning season of invertebrates or fish can eliminate reproduction for a season, and a spill during the migration season of marine mammals can kill or weaken a significant portion of the local populations of seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales, and other mammals. Seabirds are particularly at risk because they spend most of their time in the oceans or in estuaries, where massive oil spills usually occur. Seabirds also nest in large colonies of hundreds or thousands, where an oil spill can “oil” or kill hundreds at a time. Oiled parents bring oil back to the nests, killing eggs or young chicks. Because they are so visible, birds often serve as bioindicators of the severity of oil spills, although only a fraction of the birds that die in oceanic or coastal oil spills are ever recovered. Spills that occur during hurricane or cyclone seasons can be particularly hard to clean up.
People can be injured or become ill during oil spills or during the cleanup and can become ill by consuming oil-tainted fish or shellfish. Oil spill accidents can result in the death of workers on the tanker, refinery, or pipeline or the people employed in cleanup. Oil spills often occur during bad weather and stormy seas, making the hazards for the tanker crew more severe.
The effect of oil spills on fishing communities can be devastating. Fishing communities are affected both in the short term and the long term. For many weeks or months the fish are tainted or contaminated, grounding the fisheries completely. The effects of oil on the fish may result in lower harvests for years after the oil has disappeared. Fishing losses were documented for at least six years after the Exxon Valdez spill. Fishers lost income because of the low yields and restricted fishing areas, and guides and hotels lost money because recreational fishers did not come back for many years. Fishers and guides lost their jobs and their lifestyle. Native American communities also lost their ability to harvest traditional resources, including fish and shellfish, resulting in a permanent change in their lives. The effects cascaded because much of the local economy depended upon fishing and tourism. The effects of oil spills on aesthetics and existence values, as well as on fishing and tourism, are massive and extensive. The full effects of the ongoing British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon spill on the fragile ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico cannot yet be calculated as of this writing, but the long- and short-term consequences on the wildlife and fishing and tourism industries will be catastrophic indeed. A synchronous oil spill on the other side of the planet, at Dalian, an important coastal resort city in China, made it clear that disasters resulting from the continued search for concentrated forms of ancient biological life—fossil fuels—affect ecosystems, human health, and regional economies. If there is a silver lining, it is to be hoped that the disaster will lead to more robust, legally binding international laws regarding the exploration, transportation, and processing of the world’s oil, and a renewed sense of urgency of finding alternative sources of energy.
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