Largest Oil Spill In United States Biology Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

On the 24 March 1989 is an important date to remember, especially to the people in Alaska. This is because the largest oil spill in United States had exploded in Prince William Sound. One of the Exxon's oil tankers, the Exxon Valdez had grounded with the Bligh Reef and caused 8 of the 11 tankers in the vessel to torn off. Subsequently, more than 10 million gallons of crude oil had polluted the Prince William Sound. Prince William Sound is originally rich in natural resources. However, the unexpected incident had brings harm to the ecology. Besides, the oil spill also caused problems to the natives, the Alaskans who lived in that region (Harrald, Marcus & Wallace 1990; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Leber 2007; Birkland & Lawrence 2002, p. 17; Busenberg 2008, p. 203; Cleveland, C 2010; Goodpaster & Delehunt 1989, p. 1).

Many problems had lead to the incident. Unable to give immediate response and lack of equipments had caused the incident to get more serious. The unexpected weather also hinder the cleaning up process. Other than the spill that brings harm to the ecology, even the cleaning up process is causing unwanted problems to the ecosystem. The ExxonMobil had put in billions for the cleaning up project (Skinner & Reilly 1989, p. 1).

In this research, the company's aim and objective is studied and the processes of refining oil. The basic cause, effect and amendment done for the spill were discussed in the paper (Skinner & Reilly 1989, p. 1).

2.0 ExxonMobil

2.1 Company overview

Today, ExxonMobil had become the largest listed international Oil and Gas Company in the world and has business in more than 200 countries throughout the six continents (Skjærseth n.d.; Lucher et al. 2007, p. 3). The company businesses mainly focus on the exploration, production and the sales of crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products. The demand for energy is growing, therefore, to meet the high demand, ExxonMobil utilize innovation and technology to deliver energy. The company widespread research programmes sustain the operations, giving continuous improvement and explore on new energy sources and technologies. The company provide competitive advantage and to ensure broad exposure to finest quality opportunities from conventional exploration to close integration opportunities between the upstream, downstream and chemical business. The breakthrough technologies help the company to meet the rising global energy demand by supplying more energy but at the same time reduce the damage towards the environment. ExxonMobil also develop new technologies to help decrease the environmental impact and greenhouse gases emission (ExxonMobil 2010).

2.2 Aim and objective

The company aim to achieve the best product for the society by doing the jobs well. That is to produce crude oil and natural gas to provide energy and chemical products at competitive prices in a safer and environmental concern manner. The company focus on the social and environmental programmes in developed countries, developing countries and the third world countries. The company try to work hard to make the world better by supplying essential energy to increase the economic growth. ExxonMobil tried to improve the life quality (Skjærseth n.d.).

3.0 Oil and refinery industrial processes and operations

ExxonMobil's upstream are involved in early hydrocarbon resource identification, evaluate for acquisition, development, production and decommissioning. ExxonMobil has the exploration and production activities in 39 countries and production operation in 23 countries. ExxonMobil's downstream partake in refining operation and products distribution that derived from crude oil and other feedstocks. ExxonMobil is the largest global refiner and has refining operations in 21 countries (Skjærseth n.d.).

3.1 Finding for cruel oil

Crude oil are formed in between the earth layer. Therefore, to get the crude oil, people need to dig down the earth layers. Geologists were employed by the Oil and Gas companies to look for crude oil and natural gas. The geologists need to find out the location where the oil is trapped. There are various methods to locate for crude oil. With the aid of the devices like gravity meters, magnetometers, sniffers and seismometers, geologists could detect the location of crude oil. Gravity meters and magnetometers work similarly by detecting the gravitational field and magnetic field that caused by the flowing oil. Sniffer is a kind of sensitive electronic nose that used to detect the smell of hydrocarbons. Seismology is the most common kind of method used to detect the oil location by using the seismometers. Shock waves will first be created and the waves will passed through the earth layers and reflect back to the surface. The reflected waves were detected by the seismometers and readings will then be interpreted to identify the location of oil and gas (Freudenrich 2005).

3.2 Drilling and extracting the oil

Once the location of oil is found, the company need to settle the legal issues before drilling is allowed. The very first steps of drilling is to clear the land, look for water source as water is important in drilling process, and dig the reserve pit to dispose the unwanted rocks and mud during the drilling process. Next, the oil rig is set up. Subsequently, the company crew would start drilling. A well is built to allow the oil flows into the well. As soon as the oil starts flowing into the well, the oil rig is removed and replaced with the equipments used to extract oil from the well. The extracted oil will then be transported to the oil refinery for refining process (Freudenrich 2005).

3.3 Refining process

The complex mixture of hydrocarbons of the crude oil can be separated by the refining process in order to make it into more useful substances (Dean 2006).

3.3.1 Fractional distillation

The components can be separated by using the fractional distillation process. The various sizes of the components in the crude oil have different boiling point, hence, the components could be separated by heating the crude oil with different temperature. First of all, the crude oil will be heated in the boiler with 600oC and the vapour formed is transfer into the bottom part of the distillation column. The distillation column is filled with trays that have many holes. The liquids formed from the vapours were collected by the trays. The temperature of the distillation column decreases from bottom to top. Vapours get cooler as they rise through the trays. As the vapour reaches the height where its boiling point is same as the temperate of the column, the vapour would condense and formed liquid. The trays will then collect the liquid forms. Some of the liquids are passed through condensers to be cooled further and stored in the storage tanks while some liquids need to be further process through chemical processing (Dean 2006; Leber 2007).

3.3.2 Chemical Processing

Not all the distilled components are ready to be used, some need to be further processed. There are three types of chemical processes, cracking, unification and alteration. Cracking is the process of breaking bigger components into smaller one. Cracking has thermal cracking and catalytic cracking. Thermal cracking is the process of using heat to break the components whereby catalytic cracking will use catalyst to speed up the cracking process. Unification is the process of combining the smaller hydrocarbons to make it larger. The most common type of unification is the catalytic reforming. It is a process that uses catalyst to combine the components. Alteration is the process of altering the component by rearranging the molecules to make it another component. The process is done by alkylation which is using catalyst to help in altering the chemical arrangement of the components (Dean 2006; Leber 2007).

Figure 1 Combination of fractional distillations and chemical process (Dean 2006)

4.0 The risks in all areas that lead to the oil spill disaster and pollution

On 24 March 1989, at 12.04am, Exxon Valdez, one of the oil tankers under Exxon's company, had hit on the Bligh Reef. Around 10.8 million gallons of crude oil had been spilled due to eight out of eleven of the tanks had ruptured. This had become the largest oil spill disaster in the United States history (Harrald, Marcus & Wallace 1990; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Leber 2007; Birkland & Lawrence 2002, p. 17; Busenberg 2008, p. 203; Cleveland, C 2010; Goodpaster & Delehunt 1989, p. 1).

4.1 Human factors

4.1.1 Dereliction of duty

The captain, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, had consumed alcoholic beverages earlier on before directing the vessel out from Prince William Sound (Loy 2009). The captain left the bridge after giving the instructions to the third mate and never returned until the incident occurred (Yemen & James 2006, p. 2). The third mate was not licensed to maneuver the vessel (Goodpaster & Delehunt 1989, p. 1). The captain act had violated the company policy (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 1990).

4.1.2 Overestimate self-ability

The Third Mate Gregory Cousins was supposed to off duty at 11.50pm and be replaced by the Second Mate Lloyd LeCain. Cousins knew that LeCain had been exhausted from the duty earlier on, so Cousins volunteered to take over LeCain. In fact, Cousins had been working continuously for 18 hours. Cousins had overestimated self-ability and the physical tiredness had caused Cousins failed to maneuver the vessel properly (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 1990; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 25).

4.2 Engineering factors

4.2.1 Structural design

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker is built with single-hulled bottom (Goodpaster & Delehunt 1989, p. 5; INTERTANKO 1999). Single-hulled bottom tanker had only one layer of steel that separate the oil in contact with the ocean. Compare with double-hulled bottom tanker, which is built with inner and outer hull, single-hulled bottom tanker is frailer. This is because the thickness of the single layer steel that used to separate the oil in contact with the ocean is around 1 to ½ inches thick only. Double-hulled bottom tanker is more protective when experienced grounding because there is an inner layer that protect the oil from spilling out (Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 6).

4.2.2 Mechanical failure

The Raycas radar of the Exxon Valdez tanker was not functioning. The radar is used to navigate the position of the vessel to avoid it crush with other ships and islands or reefs. With the help of the radar, the position of the Bligh reef might be able to identify and the incident might not happened (Palast 1999).

4.2.3 Lack of immediate response equipment

The barge that was supposed to be equipped with immediate response equipments was unloaded. The equipments were sent off for repaired. This had further threatening the environment (Yemen & James 2006, p. 2).

4.3 Root factor

4.3.1 Lack of manpower

Exxon Valdez carried only a crew of 19 members including a captain to handle the 53 million gallons of crude oil. The Exxon Company practised the policy to cut down manning on automated vessel without compromising the safety or function. However, the limited crew resulted in excessive work load and caused the crew to be fatigued (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 1990; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 25).

4.3.2 Poor time management

The management failed to arrange the timetable properly in order to provide sufficient rest time for the crew. The packed timetable and heavy workload had cause the crew to experience physical fatigues which further lead to the disaster (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 1990).

4.3.3 Management problems

The management knew about the captain's alcohol problems and yet do not take actions toward it. This is because the captain is has very good skill. Hence, the management do not enforce the company's policy that due with alcohol problems (Goodpaster & Delehunt 1989, p. 2; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 25). The management knew about the Raycas radar is spoilt, yet no immediate action was taken. According to Palast (1999), the radar was spoilt for around one year, and it is cosy to get it repaired, therefore, the management took no action about the radar (Palast 1999).

4.3.4 Unprepared for the disaster

None of the parties were prepared to handle the disaster, hence, opportunities in response to the spill had missed (Yemen & James 2006, p. 2). For the first 3 hours, the oil spilled is only 5.8 million gallons. However, the related actions were only taken 5 hours after the incident (Skinner & Reilly 1989, p. 12). This had caused further problems to the environment (Yemen & James 2006, p. 2). An unexpected storm came on the 26 March had caused the oil to become 'mousse', which is even harder to clean (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009, p. 4)

5.0 The consequences of all the hazards of the oil spill disaster

5.1 Environmental effects

The spill had greatly influenced on the ecosystem in the Prince William Sound. The birds, marine mammals, fishes and other marine resources were affected.

5.1.1 Effects on birds

Many bird species were greatly affected from the spill. Species like Barrow's goldeneyes were week when get exposed to lingering oil. The breeding activities of oystercatchers were disrupted. The populations of common murres had declined. Many carcasses of birds were indentified, which includes 151 of bald eagle, 216 common loons, 838 of cormorant, 150 of harlequin ducks, 72 of Kittlitz's murrelets and 1,100 of Brachyramphus murrelets. Besides that, an estimation of 2,000 to 6,000 of pigeon guillemots had died due to acute oiling (Miraglia 2002, pp.79-80; Birkland & Lawrence 2002, p. 19; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010; Joling & Thiessen 2010; Meersman 1999; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 13).

5.1.2 Effects on marine mammals

The numbers of harbour seals had dropped particularly in the oiled area. Many seals got oiled even the newly born pups(Miraglia 2002, pp. 79-80). Number of killer whales that appeared in Prince William Sound had reduced (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009). Many otters got oiled, especially the sea otter (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009). The otter will lose buoyancy when its fur is covered with oil (Goodpaster & Delehunt 1989, p. 8). 871 of sea otters and 12 river otters were found dead from the spill (Birkland & Lawrence 2002, p. 19; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010; Joling & Thiessen 2010; Meersman 1999; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 13).

5.1.3 Effects on fishes

Many fish were found with high concentrations of hydrocarbons; above all the Dolly Varden got the highest hydrocarbons concentrations. Pacific herring is important in the ecosystem to developed the commercial industry and feed other birds and mammals. Those herring found in oiled area were discovered with lesions and high hydrocarbons level. The spill had affected the growth and production of pink salmon and sockeye salmon. Numbers of dead rockfish were identified too (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010; Joling & Thiessen 2010; Meersman 1999).

5.1.4 Effects on other marine resources

Clams and mussels were important food for fish and wildlife there, to maintain the food web. Research showed that the populations of clams and mussels were declined. The hydrocarbons concentrations in both clams and mussels were high. The spill had polluted the mussel bed which is important for other organisms (Miraglia 2002, p. 77; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010; Meersman 1999; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 15).

5.2 Economy effects on the Alaskan

5.2.1 Commercial fisheries

Prince William Sound had rich commercial fisheries particularly for Pacific herring and salmons. The spill had caused the fisheries to close down. Mainly because of the polluted herring and salmons were not fit to be taken. These had brought great loss to the fishermen and fish processing industry (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Miraglia 2002 p. 80; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 4; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 15).

5.2.2 Recreation and tourism

The beautiful sceneries in Prince William Sound had lead to the rapid development of recreation and tourism since 1970's. The spill had not only polluted the environment but also caused the tourism industry to decline gradually as many tourist industries had cancelled the initial bookings to the Prince William Sound (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010; Cleveland 2010).

5.2.3 Native villages

The natives that lived around the area were originally feed on the wild animals, fishes, plants and birds of the Prince William Sound as food (Harrald, Marcus & Wallace 1990; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Joling & Thiessen 2010). The spill had cut off the wild food sources of the natives. The natives had to spend money to buy food that imported from outside and the value of the food had increased after the spill had occurred (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010).

5.3 Health effects

After the spill, Exxon Company had employed many workers to involve in the cleaning up processes. The health of the workers was greatly concerned due to the long term exposure to the toxic chemicals. The workers health could be affected by the inhaling of toxic gas, getting dermal contacts with the chemicals, stress cause by long hours of work, physical injury during the cleaning processes and hypothermia (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2010; Yemen & James 2006, p. 2; Wade 1990).

6.0 The improvements and changes in the management systems to prevent the same disaster from happening

6.1 Changes in the oil tanker structural

After the incident, the single-hulled bottom oil tankers in the Prince William Sound were replaced by the double-hulled bottom oil tankers (Harrald, Marcus & Wallace 1990; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Meersman 1999). The Congress had enforced that all the tankers in the Prince William Sound to be built with double-hulled bottom by 2015 as in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (Busenberg 2008, pp. 207-208; Cleveland 2010; INTERTANKO 1999).

6.2 Vessel tracking system

The vessel tracking system had been developed to allow the Coast Guard to detect if there is the oil tankers experience navigational errors. The latest system allows the Coast Guard to trail the trait of the vessels throughout the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet with the help of satellite (Busenberg 2008, p.208; Meersman 1999; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 5).

6.3 Weather reporting system

The adding of weather reporting system had been reinforced since 1989. This system will provide the weather report in the Prince William Sound to assist the navigator in having an effective navigation (Busenberg 2008 pp.208-209; Meersman 1999).

6.4 Marine ice detection system

A new radar system was developed for the marine ice detection system in Prince William Sound. The system functions by detecting the ice. Ice monitoring throughout the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet is done by the Coast Guard from the satellite image (Busenberg 2008, pp.209-210).

6.5 Tug escort vessel system

Each loaded oil tanker will be escorted by two ships which are loaded with equipment that can give immediate response. The equipment are the skimmers, the containment booms n the dispersants and the storage tank. The escorted vessels will also give immediate navigational or mechanical help if it is necessary (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Busenberg 2008; Cleveland 2010; Meersman 1999; Steiner & Byers 1990, p. 7).

6.6 Increase number of trained crew

Lack of manpower is one of the causes of the incident. Furthermore, the third mate who is the key person in the spill was not licensed to maneuver the vessel. Therefore more trained marine pilots were added and more crew were trained by Exxon to help out in the bridge (Harrald, Marcus & Wallace 1990; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009; Cleveland 2010; Steiner & Byers 1990, p.7).

6.7 Set up drug and alcohol testing programmes

The drug and alcohol testing programmes was set up by the ExxonMobil management for the employees in need. Particularly for key employee that will be in-charge of maneuvering the oil tanker. Other than that, the safety-sensitive positions only given to those have no drug or alcohol abuse records (ExxonMobil 2010).

7.0 Conclusion

The oil spill that happened in the Prince William Sound on the midnight of 24 March 1989 had become the largest oil spill in the United States history. The oil tanker that involved with the incident is Exxon Valdez. It is one of the oil tankers that belong to the ExxonMobil Company. ExxonMobil is the largest listed oil and gas company. The company business focuses mainly on the exploration, production and sales of the oil and gas products, as well as the petroleum products. The company aim to produce the best quality product for the society. The upstream of the company involved in the oil exploration and the downstream focus mainly on the refining process. To explore of the crude oil, first need the geologists to find the source. Then the drilling is done by setting up the oil rig. After extracting the oil, the oil is sent to industry for refining process. The refining is done by the fractional distillation and chemical process, as not all the components can get completely refine at one time. The disaster at Prince William Sound is caused the oil tanker knock at the Bligh Reef and leak out almost 11million gallons of crude oil. The incident is caused by human factors, engineering factors and root factors. The human factors are the dereliction of duty and overestimated self-ability. The structure of the tanker, mechanical failure and lack of response equipment had contributed to this disaster. Other than that, the root factors caused was mainly on management problems. This disaster had terribly affected the environment. Causing many living creatures that dwell in that area had died. The productivity in the ecosystem had decreased, thus, the commercial fisheries were affected too. This influenced the economy in Alaska. The recreation and tourism in Alaska were badly affected too. The natives' livelihood in depend on the natural resources had to be changed. The long term exposure in the toxicity environment of the cleaning worker can cause health problems. Numerous steps were taken to improve and prevent the same incident to happen again in the future. These include the change to tanker structure, improving the tracking system, adding additional system like the weather reporting system and the ice detecting system. Besides that, the tug escort system is enhancing to give immediate response if any similar incident happens. The escort can give quick response to the tanker if any mechanical or navigational help needed. More trained crew were added to avoid physical fatigue that caused by lack of manpower. The drug and alcohol programmes were developed by the ExxonMobil management for the employees that were having the drug and alcohol problems.