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Oil Spills

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Oil Spills

Can you see the oil in a big oil spill?

Of course. The photo on the left shows the Gulf of Mexico oil spill after oil has leaked for nearly one month. About a month later, about twice as much oil had spilled into the Gulf, as seen on the left. The water moves and so the oil moves with it.

Oil Spills

Oil spills are another source of ocean pollution. To get at oil buried beneath the seafloor, oil rigs are built in the oceans. These rigs pump oil from beneath the ocean floor. Huge ocean tankers carry oil around the world. If something goes wrong with a rig on a tanker, millions of barrels of oil may end up in the water. The oil may coat and kill ocean animals. Some of the oil will wash ashore. This oil may destroy coastal wetlands and ruin beaches.

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The figure below shows workers trying to clean up oil on a Louisiana beach ( Figure below ). The oil washed ashore after a deadly oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Oil on beaches after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

After an oil rig explosion, hundreds of miles of beaches looked like this one. Cleaning them up was a huge task.

New drilling techniques allow oil companies to drill in deeper waters than ever before. In April 2010 a rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. Eleven workers were killed and 17 injured. When the drill rig sank, a pipe was disconnected and oil gushed into the Gulf. Three months later the well was capped. But 4.9 million barrels had entered the Gulf, about 16 times more oil than the largest oil spill to date.


Once the oil is in the water, there are three ways to try to clean it:

  1. Removal: Corral and then burn the oil.
  2. Containment: Use containment booms to trap the oil.
  3. Dispersal: Use chemicals to get the oil to disperse, called chemical dispersants . Some scientists think that the harm to the environment from the dispersants is as great as the harm from the oil.

The total effect of the oil spill on the environment of the Gulf is not yet known. Oil is found in the sediments on the seafloor. Many people who fish or are involved in Gulf tourism were also impacted. Studies of the effects of the oil spill on people and animals will continue for many years.

What You Can Do

Small amounts of oil leak into the oceans from wells or ships. By reducing the amount of oil and gas you use, you decrease the need for these commodities. Also, be sure to dispose of motor oil correctly. Motor oil poured down a sewage grate can end up in the sea. It's important to be sure that companies follow environmental regulations. They must also be cautious when they drill or transport oil in the oceans. People can demand that companies protect the ocean environment.


  • chemical dispersant : Powerful chemicals used to disperse oil that has been spilled in a body of water.


  • Most ocean pollution comes from land and most is found near the coasts. Most of this trash is plastic.
  • Plastic trash does not usually biodegrade in the ocean but just forms tiny plastic molecules.
  • Massive amounts of oil that have been spilled into a water body can be removed, contained, or dispersed. This is not easy or complete.


Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.


  1. What did responders use to try to clean oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989?
  2. What are two types of damage that have not recovered 25 years later?
  3. What body determined the amount of money Exxon would need to pay to the fishermen and others who made their livelihoods from Prince William Sound?
  4. What is the result of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990?
  5. Why is it important for computer models to work on spills right when they happen?
  6. In the economics of oil, what is often not considered that should be?


  1. What happened caused the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?
  2. How can an oil spill be cleaned up? Does cleanup return the region to it's normal state?
  3. What can you do to reduce the chance of oil entering the oceans?

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