Environmental Studies


Oil spill refers to the accidental or intentional release of petroleum components or oil products into the ocean, harbors, bays, rivers, lakes and even land. Oil spill causes pollution to water bodies and land and can have a devastating effect on the environment if adequate management measures are not adapted in time. The most hit sector by oil pollution however is the aquatic animals since in most cases, they are usually left with no alternative of rescuing their life after the ocean runs low of oxygen and food due to the formation of oil layer above the water surface preventing entry of essential gases and sunlight for photosynthesis . Moreover, following an oil spill the water becomes sticky, clinging then to some of the aquatic organisms. Despite the increased awareness about oil spills and its consequences, there have been numerous cases of oil pollution with some of them dating back to the early 1940s. According to information released by infoplease, in 1967, oil spill resulted in the spilling of 38 million gallons of crude oil into the sea near the Sicily Island. These are one among the major oil accidents that have had devastating effect on the environment yet humanity seems not to have learnt enough from it because since then oil disasters have been rampant with some of the major ones being witnessed in 1989, which also resulted in the release of millions of liters of oil into the ocean near Alaska. 

According to Ekaterina, there are two types of oil spills intentional and accidental. Oil spills have often resulted in serious economic, political, environmental, health, and biological problems. It has often affected the ecosystems and caused nature imbalance, and in extreme cases, it has resulted in the extinction and death of some flora and fauna species. Due to the seriousness of the impact, many governments, international environmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations have often tried to come up with preventive measures that will ensure that similar incidents are significantly reduced and the polluted water bodies have been reclaimed and used to support marine life again. All this mechanisms are aimed at making the world a better place for both humans and marine life because as Wen-Yen notes in pollution bulletins, the two are interrelated and the extinction of one directly and indirectly affects the other. Although the target has not always been achieved, the preventive techniques have proven to be of help; and if effectively modified and followed, trajectories relating to oil spills may be reversed and balance of the ecosystem attained. This research paper therefore, aims to bring awareness to the people about the seriousness of oil spilling and suggest different ways to implement and prevent further oil spills through my research on the effects of oil spilling, additionally, it utilizes idea of political ecology which magnifies the interrelationship between the individuals, communities, and natural environment and as a result showing the connections that oil spilling has with country’s economy, politics, and ecology.


Causes of Oil Spills

The major causes of oil spills range from the careless or deliberate dumping of the petroleum content to accidents.  Fraynas Jedrzej states in his article that among the popular causes of oil spills are tankers accidents. Accidents usually occur following faulty installation or when the tankers run into unexpected land mass, resulting in a crash or holes that can allow the oil to escape into the water bodies. This cause is very harmful because it results in the release of large volumes of oil at once. Additionally, because some of the cases are usually detected after the tanker ship has left the harbors, the spill covers a large area, posing serious threats to the lives of seabirds and marine animals. According to the article published by Aguilera, some of the incidences of oil spilling are caused directly due to human error because the companies often demand to release the ships without confirming the status and the expected weather conditions due to deadlines, especially when they are familiar with the routes. Similarly, during the processes of loading and unloading, an accident can occur, thus resulting in oil spills into the sea.  Amina Khan in his article confirms that this has been the major cause for about 3,000 of all the accidents that have occurred in the recent past. Other causes related to tankers involve collision although there have been very few cases of such happening.

The causes are not only limited to tankers in the sea. According to Wilkinson, another major cause is oil runoff from land, according to him, because many engines utilize oil and its related products to run efficiently, when these engines run, they release these substances and with time they accumulate in the ground. Examples of these oil-based products include lubricants and petroleum The effect of this is the poisoning of the land since when rain falls, the waste products get washed away to the nearby water bodies’ from where they are finally channeled into rivers and seas. Another off-the-sea cause of oil spilling is the shipping trucks and pipelines. For example, in areas where underground transport is the most efficient means of transportation. Stephen, a writer, for the star online states that the pipelines often develop cracks that in turn leak for a prolonged period, thus allowing it to find its way to the environment and interfere with domestic water transportation. Potential causes of pipeline accidents include vandalism, attacks, and structural failures. Additionally, it has been observed that in some case, oil transporting tracks are often overloaded, and this can result in accidents. Lastly, oil spills can also be a result of forces of nature. This is evident in natural seepage following the movement of tectonic plates: some of the oil reserves in the ocean find their way to the sea surface, thus polluting the environment. However, this is of a little concern because the occurrences are very rare. Other causes of oil spilling include oil spilling during mining activities. Intentional dumping and spilling due to safety concerns are forced by the need to relieve the ship excess weight.  

Impacts of Oil Spills

Oil spills are the major cause of pollution. This is evident by looking at the devastating impact often associated with oil spills. The impacts range from economic, biological, or health effects to environmental influences. Besides the company incurring a lot of losses, the biological effects are considered the most harmful. This was, for example, evident in the recent BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that caused significant social, ecological, and economic consequences. 

Economic Impact

Research indicate that oil spills affect the economy of both the seller and the buyer negatively. When crude oil is lost through spills, it has a direct effect on the amount of petroleum and gasoline available. Following an oil spill accident country has to import more to compensate for the lost barrels. The cost is further increased because as Chiang states in their article, according to international agreements on ocean pollution following oil spills, the responsible party is expected to cover the cleaning costs. This means that the company will spend a lot of funds to undo the damage. In some cases, the companies are often unable to cover all the cost, and the government is forced to intervene. Additionally, another economic impact is seen in the tourism sector.  In many coastal countries, tourists are often attracted by birds and other aquatic organisms. Sticky oils and dead birds are a huge setback to the tourism industry. Moreover, due to increased oil spilling, tourist activities such as sailing, fishing, parachuting, and rafting are a difficult task to perform. Therefore, it is evident that hotel industries that depend on these industries are put to a halt till until the ocean is cleaned. 

Biological Impacts

Most effects of oil spilling are evident when analyzing the impacts on aquatic organisms. It is a common knowledge that aquatic organisms such as fish, dolphins, seals, and plants such as planktons depend on oxygen diffused in water for their survival. However, when there is an oil spill, due to the density differences between oil and water, oil usually remains suspended on top of water, thus preventing oxygen from diffusing into the water to be utilized by aquatic plants and animals. The situation is even made worse when the spill covers a large area of the sea water. The result of this is that many animals die due to oxygen deprivation. In terms of massive aquatic plants and animals, the resultant effects are that bacteria and fungi responsible for decomposition of dead organic matters will increase their cellular activities, thus resulting in further utilization of oxygen which is already limited at the expense of other organisms. 

In many biological processes, sunlight is an important component for plants to manufacture their food. Aquatic plants depend on sunlight to manufacture their food. However, in cases when the spill covers a wide area, these plants are not able to receive adequate sunlight because oil prevents the full penetration of the light.  According to Environmental Literacy Council, fish depend on aquatic plants such as planktons as food, and when the latter do not receive enough sunlight to allow them to manufacture their food, there is an interruption in the food chain, causing a general decline in food population which affects other organisms in the food chain as well. Consequently, in regard to sunlight penetration, it is evident that many biological processes are efficiently conducted only at specific temperatures. As was evident following the gulf oil spill accident, when adequate penetration of sunlight rays is prevented, the effect of this is that water might remain relatively cold, thus interfering with several physiological processes. 

In another case of oil spill, the effect on seals, whales, and dolphins was that the oil components blocked air passages, thus making it hard for the animals to perform the gaseous exchange. It also interfered with the the living patterns in aquatic animals that are cold-blooded and have furs to ensure that they cover themselves. Oil spilling resulted in the coating of the fur, leaving animals very vulnerable and causing high chances of death. According to restoration organization due to the dangers associated with oil spills, some birds have been known to relocate upon sensing any dangers due to the harsh conditions. Another group of organisms vulnerable to oil spills are the sea birds. For many of them, oil spills are nothing less than a death sentence; for this reason, some of them often relocate upon detecting such cases. The reason for this behavior is that it has been observed that oil spills make the bird feathers very sticky and wet, thus hindering them from flying. As a result, most seabirds often die due to starvation, drowning, and loss of heat from their bodies. Similarly, a significant section of the bird’s population also dies due to poisoning after ingesting oil while trying to clean themselves. Additionally, for the sea turtles and other aquatic organisms laying their eggs in or near the water bodies, oil spills have often affected the eggs development in that they have become no longer viable after they have been exposed to the chemical content. 

Regarding the impact of oil spills on human beings, during the cleanup processes, workers often come into contact with some of the chemicals in crude oil that are hazardous. Research evidence indicates possible links between oil spills and respiratory conditions, eye and skin problems, and headache in the cleaners. Additionally, these people are also more likely to suffer from related mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. Other possible health effects of being exposed to such oil spills include kidney, liver, and lung damages. Another indirect impact of ocean pollution results from the death of aquatic organisms, especially fish: it causes a significant food reduction, especially in societies whereby fish is the staple food. In such cases, a family or society has to live several days without food until the ocean or specific water body is cleaned. Moreover, fish are likely to ingest some of the chemicals found in crude oil due to prolonged exposure. When these chemicals accumulate and human beings consume the fish as food, there is a likelihood of food poisoning. These have mostly been evident in the case of mercury, when many people consumed the chemical in fish which caused severe neural disorders. Furthermore, President Obama in his weekly address on BP Deep-water Horizon Oil Spill stated that before finding way into water bodies, oil spills introduce toxic substances into the ground and make it infertile for activities such as farming.  

Managing Oil Spills

The major oil spills such as the Arabian Gulf spills that occurred in the Persian Gulf in 1991 resulted in over 6 million barrels being spilled. Due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaskan waters and the recent oil spill in the Mexican Gulf where 260 million gallons were released into the sea, several preventive measures have been developed to ensure rapid responses in case of any occurrences of such a kind. Although several interventions have been developed before, the major challenge has often been the chemical difference between the oil components. Therefore, one technique may at times fail in managing some spills. However, there are three methodologies that may be used to deal with oil spills. These methodologies include mechanical collection, use of naturally available materials and chemical dispersants. 

Mechanical Collection

The mechanical collection can be done in two ways. The first approach is known as skimming. This involves making use of devices that are used to collect the oil from water bodies, making it thicker around the harbor. They use fine filtering instruments so as to ensure efficiency. Another alternative to skimming is the use of fire. Since oil is less dense than water, it floats; for this reason, crude oil on the water surface is often set on fire following the accident. However, the major challenge with this technique may be the thickness which is usually less at times; therefore, it requires the use of extra chemicals that may have toxic effects on the organisms in the long run. Additionally, since such fires usually cover large areas of seawater, they often cause changes in water temperatures, which can harm aquatic life near the source of the fire. 

Chemical Dispersants

Dispersants are defined as chemicals that enhance natural dispersion of oil. It is a very common technique often employed for managing oil slicks, especially when it has been proven that the oil cannot be recovered. Therefore, the aim of this technique is to minimize the extent of damage that could have been caused by the floating oil. There are three approaches to chemical dispersants. These methods include gelling, sinking, and absorbing. In gelling, the agents usually contain certain chemicals that easily form gel coagulate, resulting in the formation of lumps. These lumps are the ones collected by the ships. In sinking, the introduction of small fine granular solids results in the formation of slurry that then sinks to the bottom of the seabed, thus preventing further harm. Lastly, in absorbing, respective chemicals are applied to separate the oil components. 

However, there are several limitations to the technique. For example, in the article published by NBC News, the author claims that dispersants are far more toxic than the oil itself, By analyzing the oil spill case in the Mexican Gulf in 2010, the author states that the applied substances make petroleum less visible and thus very risky. In the Mexican case, according to Marine Mammal Commission the government introduced more than 2 million gallons of oil dispersants to prevent the oil from reaching the shore because it was predicted that it would degrade the oil. However, the findings indicate that when oil is combined with the active ingredient Corexit in the dispersants, the final product is 52 times more toxic than the oil itself. Because of the interconnections within the food chain, these chemicals are likely to find their way into the human body systems, and the outcome is very toxic. Another limitation of the technique is that the chemicals in the dispersants usually have little effect on oil that is of higher viscosity, and in such cases, the chemicals are prone to get to water even before the solvent works. 

The Use of Naturally Available Materials

The name given to natural biodegradation process for oil management is biodegradation. In this method, microbes are applied to degrade the oil. The two processes involved are bio-augmentation and bio-stimulation. Bio-augmentation is used in both sea and fresh waters, and it is important in the degrading of oil and raw sewage following the addition of the microbes. When it comes to bio-stimulation, the microbes can achieve efficiency when other elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon are included. In many cases, fertilizers containing these elements are added to increase the efficiency of the microbes. An example of naturally available materials in this category include Corchorus depressus that normally acts as a sinking material when used alongside other excipients and serve to remove oil from sea water by absorbing the components and settling them to the sea bottom. Additionally, Archasis Hypogaea has also been used to absorb the oil; after that, the oil and the plant extracts are collected on the water surface. Other natural products used include Bentonite clay and activate carbon. 

Oil Spill Preventive Measures

As it is often said, prevention is better than cure. The same applies to oil spilling. It is important that the concerned stakeholders, that is the government, the oil exporting companies, and the shipping industries, have effective measures in place that ensure that such accidents do not occur at all. Although prevention poses a lot of challenge, there are several measures that can be adopted so as to minimize resultant damages. However, what is evident is that all these techniques require adequate preparedness and continuous improvement so as to make them as effective as possible and compel them to adopt the latest technologies and international standards of operation. 

The first intervention technique that can be adopted is double-hulling. It means having double hulls inside the vessels with the aim of reducing the risk of a spill in the case of grounding or collision. This can be provided by having a secondary containment. The role of secondary containment is to prevent the release of oil in the case of possible leaks into the environment. Therefore, the leaks are contained in the second containment. The second preventive approach is to make the ship safer. However, this method depends on how well the manufacturer adheres to the standard provision that dictates how the tankers are supposed to be built and also regards the disposal methods. In order to ensure safety of the transporting ship, it is important that the ship crew be well trained and experienced before allowing them to navigate the tankers. Additionally, there is the need to adhere to strict fire and safety regulations when on board. This is important because ignorance to any of the provided procedures can result in very serious consequences. 

Moreover, it is important that the individual ship tanks be of limited size. The importance of this is that in the event of an accident the extent of the spill will be small due to the small size of the container compared to the incidences where all the oil is stored in very large containers. In very congested areas, vessel control system are advised to be adopted. According to the office of response and restoration it is also important to have technology fully integrated into the shipping industry. Up to date technology means having up to date information on weather conditions; radars and satellites installed provide images of the approved routes and sensitive coastal areas that can cause accidents. Additionally, utilization of computers can also be of significant importance. Computer aided displays play an important role as well because they allow the navigators to track the ship and warn the ship navigators of any impending danger and any possible leaks in the tankers so that they can be ready to use the appropriate measure. It is important to monitor the transport department efficiently and control all the equipment. Monitoring and quality control ensure that the ship condition and that of the navigators allow for the effective transportation of oil to its destination. 


The consequences of oil spills are not limited to aquatic animals. In order to ensure that such cases are minimized, there is the need for adequate collaboration between all the stakeholders and concerned government agencies. Many of the oil exporting companies are usually driven by profit, and since the accidents occur rarely, they are less committed to meeting the shipping requirements. Therefore, the appropriate recommendation, especially following the recent Mexican Gulf spill, would be to conduct continuous evaluation of some trading licenses to ensure dual compliance. Additionally, the crew members need to be taught about the importance of safe sailing and the consequences that are likely to appear in case of possible leaks.

It should also be recommended that multinational shipping companies have in place a system that can respond to an emergency in case any spills have been reported. The government should also conduct more investigation into some of the past scenarios of oil spills and bring the perpetrators to book. This will serve as a warning to many companies; therefore, they will ensure that they fully adhere to the regulatory laws. In cases when these companies have been found guilty of violating any of the rules, tough penalties need to be imposed on them; moreover, the cost of cleaning the water surface should be solely left to such companies. These measures are of great significance because they serve to educate profit-centered companies on the importance of environmental protection.  


In conclusion, it is therefore evident that oil spill is a global concern because when the oceans are polluted, the resultant impacts affect everyone. Additionally, there is interrelationship between the individuals, communities, and natural environment and the country’s economy, politics, and ecology. Although the cases of oil spills have significantly reduced over the years, the war is far from over because the majority of the causes are due to human error. Therefore, humanity shares a significant part of the blame. Oil spills are attributed to both human error and accidents. The causes of oil spills include accidental leaks in oil tankers on the sea; deliberate disposal of oil due to security concerns while the ship is navigating; accumulation of oil run-off from modern engines, oil factories, and lubricants for cars. When they accumulate, they find their way into underground waters and soil, thus polluting them and making them unfavorable for agricultural activities. Additionally, when rain falls, it is likely that they are going to be swept away, thus causing pollution in the surrounding water bodies. 

However, it is the effects of oil spilling that is of great concerns. The effects are categorized as economic, environmental or biological, and health impacts. Economically, oil spill results in the losses because more oil has to be imported to meet the existing demands. Environmentally, when oil is deposited to the water surface, it deprives the aquatic organisms of sunlight and oxygen, thus leading to their death. Due to the association between organisms in the food chain and food web, the oil spills also affect human beings, which is evident from diseases such as respiratory and lung infections. On the other hand, there are several preventive measures that have been implemented to ensure that such incidents do not occur. They include adherence to standards of operations and regular quality control check-ups. Moreover, safety is further enhanced through the use of computers, radars, and satellite to monitor ship movements and give locations of any hazards that can result in oil spills. However, it is important that big multinational companies involved in oil trade adopt measures that will ensure safety and protection of the environment.

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