It gave us energy for the industrial revolution. It heated our homes and powered our vehicles. Countless products have been produced, including different types of fuel, plastics, toys, protective gear and even makeup. We have come to depend on oil for so many things that it seems we can’t live without it.
The quest for oil has also caused untold damage to our environment. Oil spills in our water kill fish and other living organisms. If oil is ingested by humans directly or indirectly, it can lead to a number of health problems, including cancer. Some birth defects have been linked to oil-based products.
Big business has been resistant to alternative energy sources, mostly due to cost and efficiency. It has been suggested that big oil and big auto have conspired to keep us dependent on oil. This may lead to our ecological downfall.
When oil is burned, carbon dioxide is released into the air. This contributes to greenhouse gases which are linked to global warming and increased air pollution. Other toxic chemicals, such as carbon monoxide and soot, are released into the air when oil is burned, which can lead to lung disease, cancer and heart problems.
In addition to the dangers to our health due to pollution of the environment, employees in the oil business face risks of bodily harm while on the job. In December of 2016 there was an explosion on a Sharon Springs, Kansas oil field.
Thankfully, no one was killed, but 5 employees were injured, two of them critically with extensive burns. Apparently, the employees were checking a gas pipe with a test bit. Something caused the gas to leak and was ignited by an electrical spark. The incident is under investigation by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Unfortunately, accidents like this are all too common. Here are a few oil related disasters which should have made the pursuit of alternative energy more urgent.
The Torrey Canyon Oil Spill
Torrey Canyon may not come to mind when thinking about oil spills. However, it is unique in that it was one of the first oil supertankers and one of the first major oil spill disasters. This happened in 1967 off of the Scilly Islands, part of the United Kingdom.
The ship was built to carry 60 tons, but was enlarged in order to carry double that. It was completely full when it hit a reef off the coast of Cornwall. An estimated 25 to 26 million gallons spilled into the ocean, creating a 270 square mile oil slick. 180 miles of coastline were poisoned, killing thousands of birds and aquatic life.
Further environmental damage was done when the Royal Navy used toxic solvent-based cleaning agents to try to clean up the oil. Eventually they set as much of the surface oil as they could on fire, causing more water and air pollution. This disaster was the first of its kind, and no one ever adequately prepared for what to do in case of an accident.
Deep Water Horizon
This is the largest accidental oil spill ever recorded. In 2010, a British Petroleum (BP) oil well a mile below the ocean surface blew out and caused an explosion on the offshore rig which killed eleven people. BP tried to stop the flow of oil, but an estimated 2.5 million gallons per day pumped into the ocean for more than 85 days. The whole ordeal was televised heavily.
Remember the horror of seeing video of the oil flowing into the ocean? Countless birds and fish and other wildlife were killed. Almost 600 miles of gulf shoreline was covered with oil washing ashore. No one is sure how long we will suffer the consequences of this spill.
Persian Gulf War
This is the largest intentional oil spill. In 1991, during the Gulf War, Sadaam Hussein ordered the offshore oil rigs and tankers to open into the ocean to prevent American forces from landing ashore. It is estimated that 400 to 500 million gallons were deliberately dumped into the ocean. This resulted in a 4-inch layer of oil that covered 4,000 square miles across the Persian Gulf.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker full of oil smashed into a reef off of the Alaskan coast. Its cargo tanks ruptured, and eleven million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound. As bad as that was, it could have actually been worse, as the Exxon Valdez was carrying 53 million gallons.
Exxon attempted to clean up the spill using oil skimming ships and neutralizing chemicals. However, oil slicks formed all along 1,300 miles of coastline. People trying to help clean up the spill found the dead bodies of over 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters. It is assumed this is just a fraction of the death toll because the dead usually sink to the bottom of the ocean.
There is no way to know for sure how many living beings and organisms died from this oil spill. Estimates suggest that 250,000 birds, 300 harbor seals, 2,800 sea otters, hundreds of bald eagles along with 20-some killer whales and billions of salmon and herring eggs were victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. If you go to those beaches today you can still find oil inches beneath the beaches along the coastline.
The Exxon Valdez was repaired and renamed “Sea River Mediterranean”. It is not allowed to enter Alaskan waters, but it is still carrying oil all over the world. Who can say there will never be another spill even for just this one ship?
We need a change
These are just some of the most well-known oil spills which have damaged our environment. There have been many other spills, many other explosions and many other ways which oil has polluted our air, soil and water.
Our continued reliance on oil and the methods with which we obtain and process it are causing irreversible health and ecological disasters. It may be that we truly can’t live with oil either, at least not for much longer. It is urgent that we find clean and healthy alternative energy sources.
A few well-known alternative energy sources are solar, wind and hydroelectric. Biofuels such as ethanol are also promising, as ethanol can be produced from corn, sugar and woody fibrous plants.
Get involved in the fight for green energy sources by contacting representatives and showing your opposition to big oil. Additionally, peaceful movements working against big oil are present and active all over the world. Make your voice heard — our planet can’t afford for us not to.
This is a guest post written by Kate Harveston.
Kate Harveston is a freelance writer and blogger. Her writing focuses on politics and the environment, with a particular emphasis on social change. You can follow her writing by visiting her blog, Only Slightly Biased.