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17.10: Impact of Large Petroleum-Related Disasters

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    Impact of Large Petroleum-Related Disasters

    Large marine disasters involving petroleum spills have happened many times over the past century. The impact of these events depends on where and how they occur. Some are accidents, others include intentional acts of war, such as the destruction of Kuwait’s oil fields in the First Gulf War. Oil spills can have a wide variety of impacts ranging from minimal (when far from coastal regions) to catastrophic when they impact shore regions. Two of the largest (most expensive) petroleum-related disasters affecting North American coastal waters are discussed below.

    Deepwater Horizon on fire.
    Figure 17.17. The Deepwater Horizon on fire in 2010.

    The Deepwater Horizon Disaster, 2010

    The Deepwater Horizon Disaster started on April 20, 2010 with an explosion and fire of a submersible drilling platform located in the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles (64 km) offshore from the Louisiana coast (Figures 17-15 to 17-23). The drilling operation involved tapping an oil reservoir deep in sedimentary deposits on the offshore region beyond the continental shelf. Problems with the drilling operation and failure of equipment to prevent a blowout that resulted in the explosion and fire, and the eventual sinking of the drilling platform two days later. 17 platform workers were killed and another 11 were injured by the explosion and fire. The open well, sheared of at the seabed, proceeded to spew large quantities of crude oil into Gulf waters until it was shut down in mid July when a 75 ton cap was put in place, sealing off the well. The disaster resulted in the largest oil spill in the history of the Petroleum Industry.

    An estimated 200 million gallons (about 5 million barrels) of oil poured into ocean from the unconstrained well. Some of oil stayed on or near the seabed, much of it formed a large plum in layers within the ocean waters, and some migrated to the surface where wind and currents dispersed it. An extensive cleanup effort was undertaken to trap, degrade and disperse, or burn off much of the oil on the surface. Unfortunately, large amounts found its way onshore, impacting beaches and coastal wetlands, and severely impacting wildlife. The bad publicity wreaked economic havoc on coastal communities and businesses involved in fishing and recreation from Texas to Florida. As of 2015, BP (the company that operated the drilling program) agreed to pay $18.7 billion to settle all federal and state claims for the disaster - the biggest pollution penalty in U.S. history. Total settlement costs was in the range of $54 billion.

    Settlement of all federal and state claims brings total costs to nearly $54 billion. BP PLC agreed to pay $18.7 billion to settle all federal and state claims arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including the biggest pollution penalty in U.S. history.

    Because the spill happened in the warm open ocean waters, much of the crude oil from the spill eventually dispersed (evaporated or diluted) or was consumed by microbial activity.

    Oil-soaled bathtub ring in coastal wetlands Oil on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico pom-poms used to soak up spilled oil
    Figure 17.20. An oil-soaked bathtub ring in wetlands. Figure 17.21. Oil on a beach along the Gulf of Mexico. Figure 17.22. Pompoms and booms used to trap oil.
    oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon disaster oil-soaked sargassum Deepwater Horizon Impact Zone map
    Figure 17.18. An oil slick spreads on the Gulf of Mexico from the Deep Horizon disaster. Figure 17.19. Oil-soaked sargassum (seaweed) in the Gulf of Mexico. Figure 17.23. Regional economic impact zone map of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster of 2010. The disaster impacted fishing, tourism, recreation, and the livelihoods of millions of Gulf Coast residents.

    Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Disaster, 1989

    Prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst petroleum-related disaster affecting the US coastline was the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Figures 17-24 and 17-25). The oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska. The Exxon Valdez, a large oil tanker bound for refineries in Long Beach, California, veered off course and struck a submerged rock “reef” outcrop on March 24, 1989. The disaster was blamed on poor navigation by a drunken ship captain, poorly trained personnel, and faulty and unused navigation equipment.

    Estimates by governmental and other sources suggest that at least 10 to 11 million gallons (about 250,000 barrels) of Alaskan crude oil spilled into the coastal waters. The spill, so close to shore, eventually impaction about 1,300 miles (2,000 km) of coastline in the Gulf of Alaska (closer to 9,000 miles [14,500 km] considering all the islands, headlands, and bays along the rugged coastline). Rough seas, and the rugged and remote coastline made clean-up efforts extremely difficult, and the cold-water setting hampered the rapid decay and dispersion of the oil. The spill devastated habitats for salmon, seals, seabirds, and sea otters, and had a catastrophic effect of coastal communities in the region. The cost of the disaster, spread over many years, was in the range of about $7 billion. Hard facts were learned from the disaster. It turns out that some of the beach areas were "cleaned" - basically cooked with 150 F water. These areas were actually harmed more by the cleaning processes used. It was determined that about 35% of the oil evaporated, 8% burned, 5% dispersed by surf , and only about 5% biodegraded; the rest formed slicks that dispersed into the greater ocean currents offshore.

    An outcome of the disaster is that all new large petroleum-transport vessels are now being built with double hulls to hopefully prevent future transport-spill disasters.

    Exxon Valdez
    Figure 17.24. The Exxon Valdez leaking crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska in 1989.

    Oil spill cleanup of a turtles from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.
    Figure 17.25. Clean-up effort on Alaskan beaches after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster.

    Impact of Petroleum Pollution on Wildlife

    Pollution from petroleum-source products is a major problem in parts of the worlds oceans and coastlines. In addition, tar-ball, waxes, and other petroleum-derivative products can now be found throughout the world’s oceans. Evidence of the pollution is most abundant along developed (urban and industrial) coastlines where accidental spills occur most frequently. The risks of spills occur along all infrastructure systems associated with the petroleum production, refining, transportation, and consumption. Leaky oil from cars and trucks are a major non-point source of water pollution. Large oil spills and oil production disasters are some of the most costly, devastating both wildlife and the economic livelihoods of communities in regions where they occur (Figure 17.26).

    Oil spills are particularly bad for homeothermic (warm blooded) organisms with fur of feathers. Saturation with oil causes these animals to loose insulation and they die from hypothermia. Oil slicks poison kill 150-450,000 sea birds killed each year. Organisms living in the intertidal zone most sensitive to oil contamination.

    Refined oil and oil-derivative products tend to be non-biodegradable, and are more toxic to wildlife.

    Turtle being rescued from oil spill
    Figure 17.26. A turtle being rescued from an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Sea creatures that are rescue are cleaned with soap and released in oil-free waters.