Marine Oil Spills

Marine oil spills and discharges resulting from human activities are ubiquitous; their origins vary. Oil tankers and offshore drilling installations deliver the most obvious spills, but they account for only about 10% of accidental discharges. Spills from sunken, grounded, and abandoned ships also contribute to the pollution as do those from pipelines. Events such as the 1991 Gulf War in which deliberate releases into the Persian Gulf caused the largest oil spill in history add substantially to the breadth of oil spill genesis. On smaller, yet cumulatively significant scales, oil spills and discharges from motor boating and harbor activities also occur regularly.
No area on earth is immune from these effluents of human activities. The hydrocarbons spilled or discharged vary greatly. From sticky asphaltene to gaseous methane, heavy crude to light sweet oil, the composition of the spilled hydrocarbons significantly affects degradation rates and their ultimate fate. Similarly, the nature of the ecosystems into which they discharge modulates their fate. A marine environment commonly exposed to hydrocarbons responds quite differently to a hydrocarbon input than an environment that is rarely, if ever, exposed. Our research on accidental discharges of oil and gas into marine environments seeks an understanding of the rates of degradation by microbial and abiotic processes as well as their ultimate fate.
Because of their global relevance and contribution to significant environmental disturbance, we provide information about some of the largest oil spills that have occurred throughout the world. Similarities in accidents abound, as do the response efforts and results. Some accidents have resulted in tighter regulation of oil company techniques and greater penalties for negligent operation, and many accidents have demonstrated the pros and cons of various response efforts. Yet many lessons that should have been learned from past accidents seem to be forgotten or ignored when new incidents occur. One need only read through some of the oil spill histories to note the recurring themes. As oil drilling goes ever deeper, and as its presence invades the Arctic region, the risks of accidents increase dramatically. Furthermore, the risks of uncontrollable, and perhaps unstoppable discharge loom large, and the risks of irreversible damage to the environment increase.