These are all names to strike sadness in the hearts of anyone who values the world’s oceans and the life which it supports. They stand as testament to the arrogance and folly of humanity but also to the enduring resilience of Mother Nature which proves that anything we can throw at her, she can handle.
These names are of course examples of some of the most devastating oil spills in history, with Deepwater Horizon the most recent and which released upwards of 3 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010¹. The consequences were shattering, both in terms of human loss of life and from an environmental perspective. Eleven workers lost their lives, with many more injured, while the spill area is home to over 8000 species of animals, and with certain species suffering mutations or drastic losses to their populations as a result. Workers and local residents involved in the cleanup reported suffering health problems due to chemicals in the oil and the dispersant used, tar balls continued to show up on beaches two years later, while a dearth of marine life was noted three years after the event²,³,⁴.
In the wake of such a horrifying catastrophe, the question arises, how do such things happen? A number of factors can contribute to an oil spill, some natural, some human influenced.
While technology has improved significantly over the years, leading to generally better safety in the oil industry, the two most obvious causes of spills are human error, equipment failure and cost cutting. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, elements of all three appear to be involved. A BP report issued following an investigation and summarised by New Scientist revealed eight principal causes for the explosion which caused the rig to sink. These include poor cement quality which allowed oil and gas to leak; the failure of a critical valve; misinterpretation of pressure tests by workers, leading them to believe the well was under their control; failure to notice the presence of a leak; and the failure of a gas alarm. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, it was concluded that it was a complex series of events which led to the disaster and which involved numerous parties, each of which was forced to shoulder the blame in some way.
An even more tragic oil spill occurred during the 1991 Gulf War which was all the worse for having allegedly been deliberate. As Iraqi troops fled Kuwait, they dumped 400 million gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf, supposedly as a military tactic to prevent the US military from coming ashore and to stop them from commandeering valuable resources⁵. At the time, the conflict prevented scientists from determining the exact effects of the spill immediately but a later survey estimated that cleanup costs would run to $540 million. It is unclear whether the Saudi government actually stumped up the money. A report quoted in the New York Times claimed that little environmental damage was actually done, due to the area’s warm, salty water which lacked much wildlife, but subsequent reports disputed this⁶.
It’s not always humans that cause oil spills, with Mother Nature occasionally lending a hand herself. One such incident occurred in 1978 off the coast of France. The Amoco Cadiz was a massive tanker carrying 69 million gallons of oil when she was caught in a storm that damaged her rudder⁷. Although the crew were able to issue a distress warning, none of the responding ships were able to prevent the tanker from cracking open on the French coastline and spilling her cargo into the English Channel. The incident stands as one of the worst oil spills in history.
Our all consuming need for oil drives its demand and for the uncountable tankers and rigs which ply the oceans. As supplies dwindle and attention turns to alternative sources of energy, we can only hope that the events described here become restricted to the pages of history and that no more will the planet be plagued by such disasters.