• Bailey Higa

All About Oil Spills

We’ve all heard about oil spills, but how do they affect us? How do they start? How can we prevent them? Oil is a type of fossil fuel, and we use it every day to power our homes, make products for use, and rely on it for human activities.

Where Does It Come From?

Oil is found underground and underneath the ocean floor. There are large spaces underneath the ocean floor called reservoirs, and this is where oil is located. Oil droplets cling to rock structures and inside open spaces within sedimentary rocks.

Petroleum, or crude oil, is formed in these spaces from dead organisms and consists of a mixture of hydrocarbons. These dead organisms, such as phytoplankton and algae, sink into sediments and substrates. They begin to break down under enormous pressure and high temperatures. As this happens over millions of years, they begin to form kerogen, which is the beginning substance of crude oil.

How Do We Source It?

Humans will pump crude oil by drilling into the ocean floor and inserting pipelines. With a lot of pressure, the oil is extracted from rocks beneath the surface and sent to oil platforms in the ocean where it is then loaded onto ships and transported to a refinery. An oil refinery is a factory where oil is taken to be processed into gasoline and other products.

Throughout this entire process, there are four main ways an oil spill can occur. They can be caused by accidents during oil drilling, equipment leaks or failures during drilling or transportation, natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes) causing pipeline breakage, and land drainage. Examples of land drainage are gasoline runoff from gas stations, pollution from improper disposal of motor oil, and pollution into storm drains that lead into the ocean.

How Does It Affect Us? Marine Life?

Oil spills can have detrimental effects on humans, ecosystems, and a variety of marine life. Each year, there are thousands of oil spills that vary in size and impact. Larger spills contaminate waters and have lasting effects for months or even years after the event. As oil spills travel up the food chain, this polluted marine life can affect human health in various ways. Examples of this are respiratory damage, cancer risks, and metal contamination in the body. Additionally, oil spills pollute waters and affect swimming conditions, beach safety, and even drinking water.

Annually, over 500,000 birds, up to five million fish, and over 25,000 marine mammals die from oil spills and their effects. There are many organizations that deploy staff, resources, and rescue teams to help recover and rehabilitate animals during oil spills.

What Can We Do?

When it comes to oil spill response, each country has its own protocols and organizations that lead the charge in oil spill cleanup and recovery. In the United States, the US Coastguard is the main responder for spills in coastal waters and deepwater ports. They build prevention programs, initiate spill response, and analyze post-spill effects. The graphic below explains a few different ways they respond to oil spills at sea.

There are many ways to help prevent future oil spills. On an individual level, we can be responsible and respectful when dealing with oil in any capacity. A few non-profit organizations that help marine life during oil spills are International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), International Bird Rescue, Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

If there is an oil spill in your area, be sure to support, donate, or volunteer with local organizations rescuing wildlife. In addition, we can lower the demand for oil thus reducing the risk of oil spills in the future. We can do this by reducing our carbon footprint, oil and gasoline usage, and overall product consumption. To learn more about oil spills, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and hear from experts in the field.

Written By: Bailey Higa








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