A Guide to Oil Spills

Oil spills are major events that have huge environmental consequences. In this article, learn what an oil spill is, its effects, and how to prevent them.

Marine biologist analysing water test results on a tablet

What is an Oil Spill?

An oil spill is when there’s an accidental release of fossil fuels into an ecosystem. Generally, oil spills happen in the ocean, causing major damage to the marine environment and harming plant and animal life. But while they typically happen in the sea, there are also occurrences of oil spills on land, which can also have serious environmental consequences.

Generally, oil spills are the result of accidentally releasing crude oil from a tanker, drilling rig, well, or offshore platform. They have severe financial, economic, and environmental repercussions and are considered major disasters. Luckily, the occurrence of oil spills has drastically lowered in recent years, primarily due to an increase in oil spill prevention by organizations working in high-risk industries.

What Are the Major Effects of an Oil Spill?

The first and most significant effect of an oil spill is the way it can damage ecosystems. Crude oil and refined petroleum products aren’t naturally abundant in any ecosystem. So, the sudden release of a large amount of oil into an ecosystem can cause disruptions and affect plant and animal life.

For example, after the initial spill, animals can get trapped in the oil and die as a result. Oil can get into the fur of mammals and the plumage of birds, which reduces their insulation abilities and make them more vulnerable to temperature. Additionally, the oil itself may poison or contaminate plant and marine life, making food unsafe to eat.

Oil spills can also cause the death of many animals and plants and completely destroy ecosystems. However, the effects of an oil spill spread much further than that.

On top of the environmental consequences, oil spills have a major effect on the economy and public safety. Cleaning up an oil spill can be very expensive, and it can damage crops, marine life, and livestock. This can make certain foods unsafe for human consumption, leading to public health issues and significant economic effects.

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How Do They Happen?

An oil spill can happen in many ways, but it’s typically a result of an accident involving tankers, pipelines, refineries, barges, storage facilities, and more. Spills can be a result of anything from human error, carelessness, damaged equipment, natural disasters, and even deliberate acts by vandals, terrorists, or an act of war.

Since there are many potential causes of an oil spill, organizations working with oil must follow all the best practices to prevent oil spills. This includes regularly inspecting equipment, ensuring that everyone has proper training, instilling a culture that encourages oil spill prevention, and keeping a close watch on all your facilities.

Where Do They Commonly Occur?

Spills typically occur in the sea, and when this happens, it’s called a marine oil spill. However, there are also times when an oil spill can occur on land, causing just as much damage as a marine oil spill.

Oil spills can happen anywhere oil is drilled, processed, stored, or transported. The Gulf of Mexico is known as the most common place for an oil spill to occur due to the number of oil-related activities that go on in the area. Also, the list of where oil spills happen the most includes the Northeastern US, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the North Sea, Japan, and the Baltic Sea.

Oil spills are most likely to occur in areas where a lot of oil is being processed, transported, and extracted. So, it’s important to practice extra vigilance in this area to ensure the risk of oil spills is always kept to a minimum.

A Look at Oil Spill Prevention

The consequences of an oil spill can be dire. Oil spills not only cause huge damage to the environment but can also cost an organization a lot to clean it up and apply corrective actions. This is why it’s very important to make sure that your organization follows all the best practices to prevent oil spills from occurring.

There are many ways to keep the risk of oil spills down to a minimum. One of these methods is always making sure equipment for storing, processing, harvesting, and transporting oil is always in the best condition. When you do this, you know that your oil is safe, and there’s no chance of it accidentally leaking and damaging the environment.

Additionally, it’s very important to train all employees on the best practices for preventing oil spills. It’s common for these to be a result of human error or negligence, so it’s crucial that all members of the team understand what they can do to reduce the chances of a spill and always follow these practices.
Preventing oil spills involves ensuring everyone understands their duties, how to perform them, and documenting the entire process. That way, if something goes wrong, you can trace the exact source of the problem and apply the appropriate corrective action.

It’s imperative that everyone in the organization plays their part in oil spill prevention. That way, the company, environment, personnel, and people around them are always safe.

FAQs about Oil Spills

The operator of a facility where oil leaks out into the environment is responsible for cleaning up an oil spill. The responsible party will be in charge of all the costs involved in containing and cleaning the oil spill, along with all relevant damages as a result of the spill.

In the US, oil spills are investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are also laws in place that dictate that the party responsible for the oil spill shall also be responsible for the cleanup and containment of the spill.

The EPA is in charge of determining the party or parties responsible for an oil spill in the United States. Once the party has been determined, the responsible parties will clean up the oil spill and cover the damages.

Right after an oil spill, the oil spreads rapidly through the water or land, creating thin oil silk. It’s important to act fast after an oil spill, so investigations to determine the responsible party are conducted immediately.

The first step when an oil spill occurs is containing the spill. Once it’s been contained, it’s important to clean up the spill and take care of any damages caused.

Leon Altomonte
Article by
Leon Altomonte
Leon Altomonte is a content contributor for SafetyCulture. He got into content writing while taking up a language degree and has written copy for various web pages and blogs. Aside from working as a freelance writer, Leon is also a musician who spends most of his free time playing gigs and at the studio.