In the age of concerted efforts to develop a more eco-friendly environment, one thing remains a constant threat: oil spills. But as we think about the travesty of oil spills, our everyday life is a constant reminder of our dependence on crude oil. The oil industry plays a pivotal role in the global economy. Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia are the three most powerfully producing oil nations, producing nearly one third of all oil worldwide. Large companies invest in offshore oil rigs or oil wells which are responsible for pumping millions upon millions of oil each day. The wells are often used for storing oil or transporting it to land for the refining process.
Talks of mitigating or reducing the number of oil spills are often met with pushback from those in the industry and key stakeholders. Environmentalists argue that the cost to life should outweigh profit margins. So how do we co-exist in a world where oil seems a life essential and yet is one of our biggest foes?
Oil Spills & Their Environmental Impact
Marine pollution is a nightmarish threat to our planet. Afterall, the ocean covers 71 percent of the earth’s surface. Imagine then the terrible consequences of oil spills and how they impact marine and land dwelling life. For one thing, the impact is often long lasting, sometimes carrying on for years or even decades. Here are some of the most harmful oil spills and how they’ve reshaped the way we think about preserving our waters.
Thought to be the largest and most destructive oil spill in the U.S., in April 2010, a giant oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the responsible company was BP. Some 206 million gallons of oil leaked out of an underwater broken oil well for nearly 100 days on end. It was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of marine life species. Salt marshes, whose primary use is creating a habitat and feeding area for many creatures, had some permanent effects as a result of the spill. Oil covered these areas significantly and it proved toxic to the animals in the area who tried to clean it off. The oil spill devastated some 1,300 miles of coastline, crippling marine life and rendering ongoing problems ever since.
Once again in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, an offshore oil well owned by Pemex, a Mexican petroleum company burst and exploded during a routine drilling. It took nearly a year before the valve was capped, leaving the area vulnerable to 140 million gallons of oil drowning the area.
The largest oil spill ever took place in 1991 severely damaging the Persian Gulf ecosystem. This semi-enclosed basin of water holds the world’s largest oil reserves. Sadly, it was a deliberate spill. Brought on by Iraqi forces, who in an attempt to thwart U.S. troops during the Gulf War both set fire to and opened the valves of oil rigs allowing for upwards of ten million gallons of oil to leak. In an even more unfortunate twist, the Persian Gulf makes for the perfect climate in that its waters are warm making the toxicity level of oil higher and more dangerous for marine life.
Who Is Responsible?
Because the result of an oil spill has such lingering consequences, it often comes up in policy and legislation talks about who should be responsible for clean up efforts. In 1990, following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, U.S. Congress created the Oil Spill Act which birthed the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. It was designed in such a way that oil companies contribute to a pool of funds (meaning they are taxed) so that in the event of an oil spill where a responsible party cannot be identified or refuses to pay, the money set aside will be used for clean up.
While this sounds like a reasonable effort toward sustainability and responsibility, we should point out that Congress put a cap on individual companies so that they would not pay more than $134 million for probable causes of an oil spill. Scientists and environmentalists have called this cap ridiculously low. It’s worth noting that oil spills which result in the loss of life or are found to have been negligent, criminally or otherwise, likely end up paying more than the capped amount.
Consider the cost of clean up efforts for Deepwater Horizon. Seven years after the catastrophic event, clean up efforts were estimated at about $61 billion. That’s a 191 percent difference in fees. Thankfully, BP is responsible for the majority of the enormous bill. In fact, it shaved roughly a third of its market capitalization as a result of the disaster. But what about other lesser known oil spills? While the government does make up the difference in what a company pays and the remaining balance, other crews are on hand -- often at their own expense, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and other emergency response teams.